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Risks of Intelligence Pathologies in South Korea
Risks of Intelligence Pathologies in South Korea
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
DNI Clapper’s Rescue Mission to the DPRK
DNI Clapper’s Rescue Mission to the DPRK
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.

Commentary / Asia

DNI Clapper’s Rescue Mission to the DPRK

On 8 November 2014, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea released U.S. citizens Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller into the custody of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence (DNI), for a return flight to the United States. Bae had been detained for two years after being convicted by a DPRK court for committing “hostile acts against the DPRK”. Bae, a Christian missionary, was suspected of having proselytised against the regime, calling for a “religious coup d’état”. Miller was arrested in April 2014 and convicted in September 2014, also for committing “hostile acts against the DPRK”. Miller reportedly tore up his tourist visa upon arrival at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport and asked for political asylum.

Some people expressed surprise at the sudden release of Bae and Miller. But Jeffrey Fowle, another detained American citizen, was released in late October. Fowle had been arrested for allegedly leaving a Bible in the toilet at the Ch’ŏngjin Seamen’s Club, a restaurant and bar for foreign sailors (and North Koreans with cash). Clearly, the detention of the Americans no longer served the purposes of the regime, but Pyongyang apparently requested a visit by a high-level U.S. government official before agreeing to their release. The Obama administration would have been sensitive about sending a high-level official because of possible criticism at home and because Pyongyang could manipulate the visit for propaganda purposes. The administration pointed out that DNI James Clapper was selected for the mission to emphasise that the visit was not to include broader diplomatic discussions.

Some analysts have speculated that Pyongyang decided to release the Americans because the regime is worried about international criticism of the DPRK’s human rights record. The UN General Assembly is preparing to vote on a draft resolution that could include a recommendation for the referral of senior DPRK officials to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The DPRK’s economic dependence on China could also help explain Pyongyang’s recent international outreach and so-called “charm offensive”.

While the DPRK certainly is motivated to deflect international criticism of its sorry human rights record and to diversify its international partners, the impact of Clapper’s visit on the DPRK’s internal affairs should also not be overlooked. The Obama administration was very careful to consider the impact of a high-level visit on perceptions and audience costs within the Washington Beltway. But was the administration as prudent regarding the way Clapper’s visit would be portrayed in Pyongyang?

Washington is right to be concerned about the manipulation of visits by high-level officials. The Korean Workers Party and state media are very adept at stage-managing visits and controlling media reports to ensure that visitors are perceived to be “paying their respects to the peerlessly great men of the Kim ruling family”. In addition, high-level visits can be portrayed as Washington’s recognition of the DPRK as a “nuclear state”, which is a regime priority. To counter this, the Obama administration has been clear it will not engage diplomatically with the DPRK until it is confident that Pyongyang will return to the Six-Party Talks and bargain in good faith to fulfill its previous denuclearisation commitments.

Many analysts have pointed out that the DPRK leadership is hyper-rational and only acts out of self-interest. The Obama administration has said there is no quid pro quo, and that Obama’s personal letter delivered by Clapper to Kim Jong-un “did not contain an apology in any way, shape or form”. But what was the price for sending Clapper? Certainly Pyongyang must have believed it got something out of the deal.

If past behaviour is a guide, the DPRK sought a written apology or admission of wrongdoing. (The most famous case is the capture of the USS Pueblo in January 1968. Negotiations dragged on for almost a year before the crew was released.) The contents of Obama’s letter are unknown; however, even if the president did not “admit, assure, and apologise” for the crimes of Bae and Miller, the regime can cite Clapper’s visit as an admission that Bae and Miller were spies.

That the DPRK has been reaching out to the international community does not mean it is becoming more liberal. The benefits of economic opening, trade, foreign direct investment, and technology transfers should be obvious even to the most conservative hardliners in Pyongyang. However, the Kim family regime has been nervous about subversive ideas entering North Korea from abroad. So the DPRK leadership faces a dilemma. Opening up is necessary for economic prosperity and successful implementation of the pyŏngjin line—the DPRK’s strategy to develop the economy and nuclear technologies simultaneously. However, opening up also raises the risk of social and political instability.

Since Kim Jong-un has been consolidating his power, the regime has increased internal security in the form of increased surveillance against threats from “enemies who wish to topple the DPRK”. Under these conditions, internal security institutions have a strong incentive to provide “more security”, which can be quantified by the number of people arrested, imprisoned, and executed.

We may never know how the DPRK government will depict Clapper’s visit in its internal communications, but if the regime is consistent with past practice, it will describe Clapper as having gone to Pyongyang to “admit, assure, and apologise” for the “crimes against the DPRK”. From Pyongyang’s perspective, Clapper’s mission “proves that Bae and Miller are guilty as charged” and the DNI went to pick up agents who were conducting espionage on behalf of U.S. intelligence agencies.

The Obama administration claims it selected Clapper for the mission, but could Pyongyang have insisted on Clapper? If the DPRK insisted on the DNI and no one else, then sending Clapper to release the Americans probably is worth the cost of Pyongyang’s internal propaganda victory. However, considering the potentially increased risk that future American tourists could be charged with espionage, sending someone outside of the U.S. intelligence community might have been more appropriate assuming Pyongyang did not make Clapper’s presence a condition of the release of the two Americans.