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Risks of Intelligence Pathologies in South Korea
Risks of Intelligence Pathologies in South Korea
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Shadow Boxing on the Korean Peninsula
Shadow Boxing on the Korean Peninsula
Report 259 / Asia

Risks of Intelligence Pathologies in South Korea

In the shadow of growing North Korean threats, South Korea needs to reform its intelligence apparatus to restore public confidence while enhancing the country’s intelligence capacity.

Executive Summary

A failure of intelligence on the Korean peninsula – the site of the world’s highest concentration of military personnel with a history of fraught, sometimes violent, sabre-rattling – could have catastrophic consequences. Yet the South Korean intelligence community has revealed its susceptibility to three types of pathologies – intelligence failure, the politicisation of intelligence, and intervention in domestic politics by intelligence agencies – which bring into stark relief the potential for grievous miscalculation and policy distortions when addressing the threat from North Korea. Moves by intelligence agencies to recover or bolster their reputations by compromising sensitive information have compounded the problem. Efforts are needed to reform the South’s intelligence capacities, principally by depoliticising its agencies and ensuring adequate legislative and judicial oversight. Lawmakers and bureaucrats also need to fulfil their responsibilities to protect classified information and refrain from leaking sensitive intelligence for short-term personal political gains.

The Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) has been plagued by a series of scandals in its intelligence services since the fall of 2012. Many in the main opposition party, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (then named the Democratic Party), believe the National Intelligence Service (NIS) swayed the outcome of the December presidential election through an internet smear campaign against opposition candidate Moon Jae-in to ensure a victory by President Park Geun-hye.

The accusations and discord paralysed the National Assembly for much of 2013 and the Park administration’s legislative agenda has been put on hold. NIS employees including former Director Wŏn Se-hun were indicted for violating electoral laws and the NIS Act governing the conduct of staff.

The public’s trust and confidence in the intelligence community has been damaged by the scandals. The ROK government has been unable to implement serious reform because the necessary legislative and executive implementation also is politicised. The secrecy and technical nature of intelligence mean that most citizens – including many lawmakers – have little insight into the intelligence process and its impact on policy. The president, whose ruling Saenuri Party has a majority in the National Assembly, and NIS directors have shown little or no interest in serious reform because it almost certainly would mean a reduction in their powers.

Historical legacies have had a great impact on the structure and organisation of the South Korean intelligence community. Japanese colonialism, liberation, the Korean War and decades of authoritarian rule mean a heavy emphasis on military intelligence, internal security and counter-espionage. Democratisation in the late 1980s led to reform; tremendous progress has been made, but the process is incomplete.

This report explains why South Korean intelligence pathologies matter to the international community, and how the country’s intelligence processes work. The institutional mapping of the intelligence community provides a basis for understanding when, where, why and how intelligence weaknesses can occur in the ROK.

Through separate initiatives, findings by the main opposition party and former NIS Director Nam Jae-jun independently agreed that four broad reforms are necessary: ending the practice of embedding NIS officers in South Korean institutions such as political parties, the legislature, ministries and media firms; establishing greater oversight to ensure intelligence officers obey the law; providing greater whistle-blower protections; and restricting cyberspace operations to North Korean entities and not South Korean citizens or institutions. These measures should not be difficult to implement given South Korea’s broad consensus, but this is not sufficient.

Institutional changes also are needed. Criminal investigation powers held by the NIS should be transferred to the Supreme Prosecutors Office, and NIS directors should receive confirmation from the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee after being nominated by the president. Special courts or judges should be selected to provide oversight and prosecution of sensitive national security cases. Finally, intelligence capabilities should be enhanced but only with appropriate oversight along with checks and balances to reduce the likelihood of the intelligence pathologies outlined in this report.

The stakes are high. Were intelligence failure or the politicisation of intelligence to lead to open conflict on the Korean peninsula, the costs would be enormous. The ROK is the world’s seventh largest exporter and ninth largest importer of merchandise. Seoul also has a mutual defence treaty with Washington, so any conflict would draw in the immediate involvement of 28,500 U.S. military personnel deployed in South Korea. North Korea and China likewise have a bilateral treaty that includes a security clause whereby both parties pledge to assist in case the other is attacked.

Quality intelligence is critical for managing the challenges. Pyongyang is committed to increasing its nuclear and missile capabilities and it presents other asymmetric and conventional military threats. South Korea, with twice the population, about 40 times the economic output and significant technological advantages, is expanding its counterstrike capabilities and has pledged to deploy its so-called “kill chain” to identify and neutralise any imminent attack. High-quality intelligence also is needed for non-conflict scenarios, particularly in anticipation of the North’s state collapse or a massive humanitarian crisis. In the case of a North Korean collapse and sudden unification, Seoul would have to make quick decisions to prevent a rapid deterioration of the situation.

Without accurate intelligence, several types of errors could occur: a failure to perceive an imminent attack; incorrectly assessing that an attack is imminent; or failing to develop effective contingency planning. On the Korean peninsula, given the vulnerabilities in the South’s current intelligence apparatus, any of these scenarios constitute a distinct possibility.

Op-Ed / Asia

Shadow Boxing on the Korean Peninsula

Originally published in The Interpreter

The report that Korean People's Army General Hyon Yong-ch'ol, Minister of the People's Armed Forces, has been shot for insubordination – by an anti-aircraft gun and before a crowd of officials, no less – raises troubling questions about both halves of the divided Korean Peninsula.

While there still is no confirmation regarding the purge from Pyongyang, South Korean National Assemblyman Sin Kyong-min, a member of the Intelligence Committee, told reporters that Seoul's National Intelligence Service (NIS) has multiple sources for its claims.

The scepticism of many analysts is less about the reported execution than the timing and motivation behind its sudden revelation. Though Hyon is supposed to have been executed on 30 April, the news emerged only on 13 May, a fortnight in which NIS appears to have suffered two intelligence embarrassments. 

On 29 April, the NIS told National Assembly members the North's leader, Kim Jong-un, 'was highly likely to visit Moscow' for the 9 May World War II Victory Day celebrations, only to be proved wrong the following day. Then Pyongyang appeared to take Seoul by surprise by testing a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on 8 May. Although North Korean state media suggested the SLBM is operational, it appears to have been an ejection test from a submerged barge and the missile only flew a short distance.

South Korean President Park called the test a 'serious security challenge' at the National Security Council meeting she convened on 12 May, and she probably then approved the NIS leak to the National Assembly about Hyon's execution as part of an effort to alleviate public concerns.

For sceptics, releasing the news about a spectacular purge in the North looks like an NIS attempt to rehabilitate its reputation. It could also be intended to shock the international community in order to garner support at the UN and elsewhere in case Seoul decides to impose additional sanctions against Pyongyang.

But if Hyon has indeed been executed, what are the implications?

Some analysts say the recent increase in purges is a sign of instability in the North. Others argue that Kim remains in firm control because the problems of planning collective action against him are insurmountable. Another group suggest improvements in the economy indicate the regime is becoming stronger.

I see no signs of any rebellion against Kim and I'm sceptical about internal instability at this time. I believe the leader has several advantages in managing the dictatorship in order to remain in power: his vast, established institutions of repression; the difficulties of organising collective action against him; and the array of dilemmas someone in the elite faces in trying to persuade anyone to join a rebel faction.

Hyon was probably more vulnerable than many realised. A career soldier, he enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the military, which he joined in 1966. He was elected to the Supreme People's Assembly in 2009, and the next year was promoted to four-star general and elected to the party's Central Committee. He was advanced to vice marshal and Chief of the General Staff in July 2012, the same day his predecessor, Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, was stripped of his positions and disappeared. About a week and a half later, Hyon became a vice chairman of the party's Central Military Commission, only to lose one of his general's stars after three months. In March 2013, he was back on track as a candidate member of the Politburo, but two months later he again lost a star and was reassigned to Kangwon Province, far from the seat of power. 

Hyon appeared to have redeemed himself when he regained the star and was appointed Minister of the People's Armed Forces in June 2014. Rehabilitation seemed complete in September with his election to the National Defence Commission. As recently as April, he was in Moscow for an international security conference.

Kim needs professionals to run his military, and Hyon was a survivor with proven ability to 'reform' and play the North's brutal political game of redemption and rehabilitation. That his career may have ended with him paying the ultimate price demonstrates that even a senior leader can miscalculate. 

It is also worth considering the implications of the way Hyon's reported execution was made public by an NIS leak. The information was provided to the National Assembly's Intelligence Committee during a 'closed hearing' with the expectation it would soon reach the media. This common South Korean practice is indicative of the dysfunctional relationship between the NIS and the legislature.

South Korean lawmakers repeatedly compromise sensitive intelligence to impress constituents, though it damages national security and intelligence cooperation with allies, as International Crisis Group has reported. While many citizens and lawmakers complain about the NIS being politicised, the National Assembly's predictable leaking gives the intelligence organisation a means to enter the political realm without democratic accountability. Indirect disclosure in this way undermines the trust needed for a 'healthy democracy' (one of President's Park's favourite terms).

For the international community, and South Korea in particular, the recent shadow boxing could have grave consequences. Peace and stability on the Korean peninsula are now based solely on deterrence, yet in the South, intelligence has sometimes proved flawed, and in the North, a key player may have made the ultimate miscalculation.