Who will watch the watchers?The government recently announced a plan to transfer the National Intelligence Service’s mission of investigating pro-communist activities to the police, but based on my decades of experiences with the NIS, I frankly cannot agree with the idea because it lacks practicality.
It takes at least three years for an NIS intelligence team to catch a spy network. It calls for evidence collection and arrests of spy suspects if they are detected through their overseas operation network or cyberspace. Cooperation and collaboration with the prosecution, courts, police, airports and ports are necessary to understand the surroundings of suspects.
Moreover, evidence collection, including the tracing of online activity, requires security and confidentiality. When a small mistake exposes an investigation, it would come to nothing at once. Even with complete evidence, the case could be dismissed during the trial if there are any flaws in the investigation.
Agents involved in anti-communist operations can hardly afford to enjoy their private and family life because their mission requires a special sense of calling. That’s why many avoid working in the spy agency’s domestic department.
I’ve heard internal complaints within the NIS that the credit for taking down spies often goes to the domestic security investigators instead of the staff at overseas departments or science-related teams. Despite sharing the same roof, NIS teams often don’t cooperate well.
If counterespionage activities are transferred to another agency like the police, cooperation will become even harder. Scientific facilities and communication centers will face serious trouble in the long run. Since the NIS needs these facilities for intelligence gathering, they cannot be transferred to the police.
Attaching domestic security agents to the police won’t do the job. It is very inefficient to create a new agency that replaces existing networks with North Korean informants, foreign informants and investigation agents. It would be more efficient for the NIS to keep a minimal domestic security staff to handle the task. In fact, from January 2000 to April 2012, 51 spies were caught, 46 of them by the NIS. The other five were apprehended by police.
In the new millennium, North Korea is focusing its capacity on cyberterrorism and psychological warfare. Following an internal directive to study South Korean computer networks, North Korea has 12,000 tech specialists in the party, military and government carrying out not only cyber terror attacks but also distributing systematic propaganda, engaging in psychological warfare, gathering intelligence and communicating with spies. South Korea’s financial and media networks have been helplessly attacked by North Korea.
The regime uses the internet for propaganda activities as well. It is not hard to find posts apparently praising North Korea on major portal sites.
The NIS is the agency that can handle such activities. Intelligence agencies in developed countries have investigative authority on anti-government organizations. Israel’s General Security Service, France’s General Directorate for Internal Security and Russia’s Federal Security Service all have authority to investigate terror threats and espionage.
Countries that have experienced division are similar. China’s Ministry of State Security, Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security and Yemen’s Political Security Organization all oversee the investigation of subversive elements. North Korea’s State Security Department, the direct rival of South Korea’s NIS, also has investigative authority.
When I was active in the agency, I visited the North Yemeni capital of Sanaa several times in the late 1970s and early ’80s before the country was united. I worked with the North Yemeni intelligence security department to collect intelligence on the activities of North Korean agents in South Yemen’s Aden and North Yemen’s Sanaa.
The head of North Yemen’s intelligence and security department was killed in Sanaa after he visited South Korea to help with South Korea-Yemen ties. North Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh ordered an investigation into North Korea’s possible involvement.
After the Korean War, South and North Korea remain divided. I find it natural for the intelligence agency of a divided country to have the authority to investigate pro-communist activities for its survival. South Korea is in a confrontation against North Korea. Depriving the NIS of its authority over anti-communist operations to reform the NIS is a form of self-injury and threatens national security.
North Korea’s penetration happens domestically and internationally. Transferring the authority to investigate pro-communist activities to another unit would critically weaken its anti-communist function. It would result in creating an environment where spies and those helping them can work freely.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 17, Page 29
*The author, former head of the North Korea team at the National Intelligence Service, is head of the Yangji Association.