No compromise on intelligence

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No compromise on intelligence

Earlier this year, I watched “The Imitation Game,” a film about British mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), recruited by the newly established MI6 during World War II to break Nazi codes.

The protagonist heads the intelligence agency’s cryptography team and manages to successfully break the complex encrypted messages created by Nazi Germany’s Enigma machine. Turing makes critical contributions during this devastating conflict to the victory of the Allied Forces, saving 14 million lives and helping troops to win major battles.

In an especially poignant scene in the film, Turing’s team finally breaks the code, only to find that one of the messages contains information about Germany’s plan to bomb a ship on which a teammate’s family is onboard. He pleads with Turing to release the information to save his loved ones, but Turing flatly refuses, as German forces would then realize that their code was broken and change the encryption system.

A similar event happened during World War I. On Jan. 6, 1917, German foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann sent a coded telegram to the German ambassador to Mexico proposing that if the Mexican government fought a war against the United States, Mexico could retake three American states, including Texas.

But British authorities intercepted the telegram and decrypted it using the German codebook obtained from a sunken U-boat. The decrypted message was soon delivered to the U.S. ambassador in Britain, and outrage among the American public forced U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to enter the war, marking the turning point that led to an Allied victory.

We have seen first hand the impact intelligence has had in history. Countries invest enormous resources and money into obtaining information. In the late Joseon era (1392-1910), Korea failed to read the dynamic among its neighbors and international development and was forced to suffer.

Intelligence activities against enemy states in the Korean Peninsula are often highlighted as crucial infrastructure for the existence of our nation.

So then, how is intelligence obtained? Technical Intelligence (Techint) is a form of intelligence gathering using technological infrastructure for worldwide surveillance - what Edward Snowden exposed about the U.S. National Security Agency.

Human Intelligence (Humint), on the other hand, is intelligence gathering via interpersonal contacts.

Techint requires constant research and development to use the most advanced and obscure technology at the moment - target subjects always try new methods to avoid surveillance, afterall.

If a clue can be obtained through Humint, it can lead to great progress. But if the system is exposed in the process, it can lead to sensitive diplomatic and security breaches among nations, so any trace must be completely erased.

Korea has a shameful intelligence history. During inquiries on the West Sea naval clash by the National Assembly’s defense committee in October 2002, the chief of the communications and wiretapping unit in the Armed Forces showed a black book to the minister of defense, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staffs and committee members. The black book contained analysis and reports on daily enemy communications. But because South Korea exposed its wiretapping activities on Pyongyang, North Korea changed its wireless coding system, and even China changed its radio communication frequency. It was a worst-case scenario that obliterated the endeavors and sacrifices of many of our nation’s covert agents.

It’s unfortunate that the intelligence necessary for state administration is stained with a history of distrust and conspiracy. Korea once had the best intelligence network in Northeast Asia. Neighboring countries used to rely on Korea for intelligence, and the United States was envious of our analytical capacity.

But all these efforts have been distorted by political controversy, and our citizens view the National Intelligence Service as an immoral organization. As a Korean citizen, I feel sorry about the multitude of intelligence resources that have disappeared unknown.

What was Alan Turing’s justification for keeping the message secret? Can it be interpreted solely based on law? Can it be discussed in moral or political terms?

There is no clear answer.

But he most likely made the decision looking out for national interest.

The Korean intelligence agency has certainly lost public trust and must make additional efforts to regain that trust. It will take time to win back that support, and it will take a long time. But in the process, the essence of its existence must not be undermined. Intelligence specialists should extend their support and advice to make sure the intelligence agency’s loyalty to the country is not at all compromised.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff

*The author is a professor at the Korea University Graduate School of Information Security.

by Lee Kyung-ho

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