Set up a top-notch overseas spy agency
The author is a senior writer on international affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.
A big reason for the stalemate in the invasion of Ukraine is Russia’s underestimation of its neighbor. Based on its comparative strength as a military and economic power, Russia thought it could topple the Ukrainian government and establish a puppet regime in a few days. But the Ukrainians stood up against the invaders just like South Koreans did during the Korean War seven decades ago. In a remote speech on Monday to the National Assembly, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged South Korea to supply defensive weapons such as the Cheongung-II surface-to-air missiles the South Korean government proudly sold to the UAE for 4-trillion-won ($3.3-billion).
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu’s alleged request for missile supplies from China and North Korea also shows the predicament Moscow faces in its war with Ukraine despite a massive mobilization of tanks, missile attacks and soldiers. The request by Russia, if true, could mean an attempt to secure weapons parts to evade international sanctions on Russia for strategic materials, including semiconductors.
Despite uncertainties over the progress of the war, poor decisions can be attributed to the Kremlin’s failure to get correct intelligence. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year following the Soviets’ pullout in 1989 reaffirmed that a victory in war is not guaranteed by military hardware or economic power. Putin almost certainly went to war based on poor intelligence.
Collecting and analyzing pieces of information and judging a situation is a unique skill. Political disruptions and hubris lead to misjudgments. On January 31, 1968, at the peak of the Vietnam War, the U.S. forces and South Vietnamese forces were caught off guard when the North Vietnamese and communist Viet Cong forces staged the Tet Offensive. A critical lack of intelligence brought about a crisis. During the Fourth Arab-Israeli War, also called the Yom Kippur War, in October 1973, Israel lost nearly all of its fighter jets and tanks when Egyptian forces armed with Soviet-made ground-to-air and anti-tank missiles launched a surprise attack. Israel could stand on its feet after Uncle Sam came to its rescue. Signs of an imminent attack were detected but ignored. Misjudgments about the enemy after the elation over victory in the Six-Day War in 1967 played a big part in Israel’s defeat.
Misjudging international situations has a lasting impact. The United States did not anticipate the Islamic Revolution in Iran in January 1979. Just five months earlier, the CIA issued a report flatly denying the possibility of a revolution. America is still paying the price for not detecting signs of revolution in the Middle East.
The U.S. intelligence community’s inability to foresee the breakup of the Soviet Union is still being criticized for helping trigger extreme chaos in the transitional period. That experience may have set the foundation for Russia’s offensive foreign policy today.
The 9/11 terror attack is one of the biggest failures of intelligence. U.S. intelligence agencies had the threads of the terror attack, but could not pull them together. Based on that shameful experience, Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 followed by the establishment in 2005 of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), which oversees 16 other intelligence organizations, including the CIA and FBI.
It should be noted that the DNI is an independent body beyond the jurisdiction of the president — a fundamental mechanism to ensure its head only serves the people and nation based on expertise without any political pressure. Since the start of Joe Biden’s administration in January last year, the DNI has attended Cabinet meetings and maintains close networks with the White House and other departments. In the U.S., intelligence reform means an integration of related agencies to elevate their stature.
The same applies to Israel’s Mossad. That national intelligence agency only reports to the prime minister. The average term of its head is five years and six months. Changes in administrations usually does not affect their term in office.
The time has come for Korea to establish a spy agency devoted to overseas intelligence to fit its elevated international stature, not to mention its proud history of establishing democracy. Korea also needs to foster regional experts and reinforce intelligence networks overseas. If the government chooses to ignore the importance of international intelligence, it cannot plan for the future.
Our lawmakers’ shameful reaction to the Ukrainian president’s speech to the National Assembly shows Korea has a long way to go. To prevent such pitiful scenes in the future, we must set up an independent overseas intelligence institution.