Lifting the curbs on intelligence

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Lifting the curbs on intelligence

Kim Sung-bae

The author, a former director of the overseas intelligence bureau of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy.
In his book “Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations,” French sociologist Raymond Aron studied international politics from the perspective of soldiers and diplomats. But in international politics, spies also play an important role along with diplomats and soldiers. To win the international political contest, intelligence capabilities are needed as much as military and diplomatic power. That’s why there are more spies than diplomats in active service around the globe.
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recently admitted that its foreign informant network is coming down after losing informants in recent years. The increased role of high-tech and hacking tools played a part. Today’s intelligence activities are less based on Humint, or intelligence collected by human sources, than on Techint, which is collected by advanced technological equipment. As a result, intelligence operations and information networks ironically became easier to track and compromise. With the advances in science and technology, reliance on human informants has lessened.
Espionage activities have never been easy. In movies, spies are fearless of the laws or enemies on their mission. But the reality is too glamorous. All intelligence officers must work in compliance with the laws of each country, including their own. James Bond 007 has no license to kill. Even if a spy is working toward safeguarding national security and world peace, their illegalities are punished when found.
During the Cold War days, spy activities incompliant with laws had been tolerated since national security came first. But aggressive intelligence activities have become less condoned. As a result, advanced countries have responded by strengthening measures to protect intelligence activities necessary for their national security. In 1978, the United States enacted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to protect counterintelligence activities. Canada revised its Security Intelligence Service Act in 2015 to allow its intelligence agencies to collect information not bound by foreign laws and international accords. Switzerland also has enacted a similar intelligence law in 2017.
President Moon Jae-in, center left, National Intelligence Service (NIS) Director Park Jie-won, center right, and other government officials celebrate the installation of a stone inscribed with the new motto of the spy agency. [BLUE HOUSE]

President Moon Jae-in, center left, National Intelligence Service (NIS) Director Park Jie-won, center right, and other government officials celebrate the installation of a stone inscribed with the new motto of the spy agency. [BLUE HOUSE]

It could be premature to discuss similar measures in Korea as the spy agency’s political intervention and illegal surveillance on civilians still poses a concern and controversy. But such measures should be considered. While I was the head of overseas intelligence at the National Intelligence Service (NIS), many of our officers could not eagerly pursue secret missions or intelligence activities if they clash with the law after the spy agency became the target for correcting the past wrongdoings by powerful state agencies. Since political intervention by the NIS has become prohibited by the law, urgent intelligence activities for national security should be protected by the law if they are irrelevant to domestic affairs.
The NIS has undergone sweeping reform to restore public confidence. Public expectations are still high after spy activities are often featured in movies and TV dramas. Undercover NIS officers are believed to be fighting for their country around the world. Korea is not just among the world’s top 10 economies, but also has risen as a military and cultural powerhouse. Intelligence capabilities also must meet public expectations.
Various efforts are needed for Korea to become an intelligence power. Here, science and tech capabilities are imperative. Greater counterintelligence against novel challenges and overseas economic activities should be enhanced. Systematic mechanisms are necessary to protect Humint and clandestine overseas espionage activities. Unlike official NIS officers and counterintelligence activities based in Korea, officers on black or covert operation overseas are often required to work with no protection. The government has a duty to protect and support NIS staff.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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