Spy system down during missile tests

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Spy system down during missile tests

A critical component of South Korea’s military intelligence collection system was inactive for months last year, during which North Korea test-launched several short-range ballistic missiles, according to several government sources in Seoul on Sunday.

The device, which intercepts communication and electoral intelligence from a maritime location, is designed to detect signals coming from North Korea. It broke down around February last year, when North Korea and the United States held their second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Several sources attest that the South Korean military sent the device to Canada for repairs, because components of the system were only available from its original manufacturer in the country. “We were unable to operate a maritime signals interception system for around three months while the device was under repairs in Canada,” said one government source. The device has since been fixed and is being regularly used by the military to collect intelligence.

After an internal investigation, the military concluded the device had broken down as a result of improper maintenance. Another source, however, claimed the system has been causing controversy as a result of doubts about its stability ever since its installation. The machine has been at the center of a number of controversies since its adoption by the military. From 2015 to 2017, when the device was procured by the military along with several other systems through a classified budget, several military officers were accused of having leaked military secrets after they allegedly attempted to grant government contracts related to a device to a single company. No measures were taken other than punishment for the officers involved.

While the device was under repairs for around three months since February last year, North Korea tested what it called a “new-type tactical guided weapon” from a location on its eastern coast on April 17. The test only became public after North Korean state media officially announced the launch, after which Seoul’s military responded it was in the process of analyzing the test.

A similar weapon was launched once again on July 25, which military analysts say could be a short-range ballistic missile adapted from the Russian-made Iskander missile system. One military source said the South Korean military was in a state of disarray following the test because of its inability to properly detect the launch beforehand.

Another source, however, said that while the maritime signals interception system had indeed been sent to Canada for repairs last year, its absence did not affect the military’s intelligence collection efforts regarding the North Korean tests.

Experts note that the sensitivity of the situation on the Korean Peninsula at the present should prompt military planners to exercise more caution with regards to implementing critical equipment. “There were cases in the past when the military procured weapons through its classified budget that did not meet standards,” said Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, a private military research organization in Seoul. “Security is important, but strict monitoring is also necessary.”

BY LEE CHUL-JAE, LEE KEUN-PYUNG [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]
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