State secrets at riskThe National Intelligence Service is full of cuts and bruises, stuck in a vortex of contempt and reorganization. At the center of it all is the NIS reform committee and task force aimed at rooting out so-called “past ills.” The head of the committee is Jung Hae-gu, a professor at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul.
Every organization has a space representing dignity and pride. Government organizations, corporations and family clans all have a forbidden “sacred area.” The sacred space of the NIS is its main server. Kim Sung-ho, a former director of the NIS, said even he could not access it freely, calling the server a Pandora’s box. But the taboo has been broken, as the task force has access to the main server.
The committee and task force are composed of civic leaders, prosecutors, lawyers and professors. They feel a sense of mission to trace the NIS’s wrongdoings and corruption, but they are amateurs when it comes to intelligence. The world of intelligence is a stage for professionals. One cannot simply understand it without experiencing it.
Following the arrests of former NIS directors Nam Jae-joon and Lee Byung-kee, Lee Byung-ho is also under investigation. All NIS heads under President Park Geun-hye are being investigated by prosecutors. It represents the fall of the NIS.
But the main server issue could become more serious than the shock and humiliation. The secrets in the main server are overwhelming. They contain dramatic accomplishments as well as despair and lessons from failure. Intelligence operations walk the fine line between legal and illegal. It is a storage space for state top secrets. The life of the server is secured by its complete separation from the outside world.
Now, the server is being used to eradicate the ills of past administrations. The idea and execution are unprecedented. Other countries have employed different ways to reform intelligence agencies.
In October, secret documents related to the assassination of John F. Kennedy were released in the United States. The documents released by the National Archives seemed ordinary and did not absolve any conspiracies. Sensitive secrets remained uncovered because they contained the identities and roles of informants.
The assassination occurred 54 years ago, but the reasons for keeping certain documents secret were respected. This is how a first-class nation maintains its secrets.
The NIS brought itself to this shameful situation. It was a place where fabricated comments were posted and vulgar images spread. The NIS had pledged not to intervene in politics, but that pledge was not kept. The NIS fell because it lost the ability to heal itself. The NIS says it follows strict procedures for server access. But the opposition has raised concerns about handling state secrets and biased selection of materials.
The Pandora’s box has been opened. It is unique by nature. Regardless of the scope of exposure or transfer of contents, it will bring ominous consequences. Above all, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency will refuse to provide high-level information. As the NIS server contains secret information produced by the United States, Washington is concerned about the exposure of their information. The CIA opened a Korea Mission Center in May to collect intelligence and conduct operations on North Korea. The move is reportedly based on their distrust of Korean intelligence authorities.
The NIS employee pledge firmly states that security should be safeguarded just as life and work-related secrets are kept till the end. But agents have grown suspicious. Last year, a group of North Korean workers escaped from Ryukyung Restaurant, and young agents took pride in the operation. The task force now has access to those secrets.
The NIS has decided to rename itself the Foreign Security Intelligence Service. Its right to investigate pro-Communist activities will be taken away.
The root of the NIS can be found in the Korean Central Intelligence Agency established by former Prime Minister Kim Jong-pil in 1961. But even Kim says its investigation authority should have been given up. “The KCIA intended to temporarily have its investigation authority during the May 16 Revolution regime. Once the civilian government was established, I meant to return the power to the prosecution.
“But I left the KCIA after the transition to civilian government, and successors did not give up their investigation authority. As a result, the intelligence agency has abused its power and deviated from the law. As a founder of the state intelligence agency, I cannot help but feel responsible.”
President Moon Jae-in remains firm about self-reliant defense, but the foundation of self-reliant defense is information. Information determines how we handle crises — and can decide the results of war.
Former NIS chief Lee Jong-chan argues there is a pressing need to restore the agency, and that begins with restoring the pride of agents. The reform committee and task force should be different. Their method of relying on the main server should be reconsidered. The public officials in charge face a moment of critical decision.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 30, Page 35
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.