Sources: The International Crisis Group on the ROK Intelligence Community



The International Crisis Group’s Dan Pinkston has done another excellent report for the group that focuses on an understudied issue: the South Korean intelligence community. The report, entitled Risk of Intelligence Pathologies in South Korea, addresses the usual risks of intelligence failure and argues for the acquisition of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets to match North Korea’s reliance on asymmetric capabilities.

But the core of the report is not about hardware or personnel -- it is about politics. Since the election of Lee Myung Bak in 2007, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) has been involved in a series of major scandals:

  • The online campaign against opposition presidential candidate Moon Jae-in in the fall of 2012, including on the part of the Cyber Command, a critical military unit created in 2010;
  • the former NIS director’s release of a classified transcript from the October 2007 inter-Korean summit, also designed to discredit Moon, who had been Roh Moo Hyun’s chief of staff;
  • the fabrication of evidence in a counter-espionage court case against Yoo Woo-sung;
  • repeated politicization of intelligence on North Korea, including unsupported claims that North Korea was on the brink of collapse during the Lee Myung Bak presidency;
  • and outright bribery and personal corruption, most notably on the part of Lee Myung Bak’s second NIS director Won Se-hun.

The report provides detailed, blow-by-blow accounts of each of these affairs, and how they have deeply polarized not only the debate over reform of the IC but politics more generally. A non-trivial share of the opposition electorate believes—a la Bush v. Gore—that the 2012 election was effectively stolen, and possibly with advance knowledge by Park Geun-hye herself (the Asan Institute’s report from last year on public reaction to the scandal is still worth reading).

However, these scandals are only the tip of an iceberg that includes a long history of inappropriate domestic surveillance that can be traced to the formation of the KCIA following the Park Chun Hee coup in 1961. The ICG report shows that, even following important reforms under Kim Dae Jung, the INS remained remarkably shielded from oversight. Its director is appointed by the president without need of consent from the National Assembly. The National Assembly cannot summon the NIS director, its budgets are classified--even though they are estimated to run to roughly $1 billion a year—and even the organizational structure of the agency is confidential.

The central problem, however, is that the NIS—like its predecessors—maintains the authority to investigate subversion and domestic activities that are deemed to pose national security risks. This has resulted in the practice of NIS intelligence officers being embedded and monitoring political parties, lawmakers, mass media and other institutions.

The report walks through the deadlocked efforts to reform the INS and the divergent proposals coming from the two sides of the political aisle. The report shows that the proposals of the two parties in fact overlap on important points, including pulling back from domestic surveillance operations. But the Park administration—and the NIS—has clearly preferred to undertake self-reform measures pre-emptively rather than taking them through a legislative route that would raise the larger political issue of the integrity of the 2012 election.

This is an excellent report not only for understanding the ROK IC, but for understanding the major issues that have polarized the political system under the Park administration.

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