Opinion
[Kim Myong-sik] The still-murky role of South Korea’s state intelligence chief
Published : Sep 23, 2021 - 05:31
Updated : Sep 23, 2021 - 05:31
When the head of South Korea’s main intelligence agency meets a young woman in an exclusive hotel restaurant on a weekday, common sense has it that they must either have serious business of public importance or an intimate relationship. But National Intelligence Service Director Park Jie-won and Cho Sung-eun, a 33-year-old former staffer with the main opposition People Power Party, deny either possibility and call it a simple social event.

The Hotel Lotte luncheon on Aug. 11 has become a hot topic in the pre-election discussion because a few weeks after the get-together Cho had her journalist friend disclose an allegation injurious to Yoon Seok-youl, a former prosecutor general and now a leading opposition presidential contender. An internet newspaper reported on Sept. 2 that a senior aide to the prosecution chief drafted criminal complaints against some prominent members of the present ruling camp alleging abuse of power in April last year. Cho confirmed she had supplied materials for the story.

Arguably, the Park-Cho meeting could constitute a criminal offense if they consulted for the purpose of making a case against Yoon, the opposition candidate. If it was just an occasion for socializing, the $500-plus tab on the official NIS expense account could not be justified. If the intelligence chief and the woman, who is still a member of the People Power Party, had a business engagement concerning national security, they had better provide a convincing explanation.

People who have followed the story so far can hardly suppress their disappointment at the apparently too liberal behavior of the nation’s intelligence chief, in spite of the heavy responsibility he bears at this time when the Korean Peninsula faces a grave security situation. And their thoughts move on from the colorful career of Park Jie-won, a phoenix in South Korea’s political world, to the complex history of the state intelligence apparatus, which has a long record of political maneuvering since its creation 60 years ago.

Park, 79, is the 35th head of the NIS, which was born in 1961 as the Korean Central Intelligence Agency immediately after a military coup d’etat. That the spying agency has had so many leaders may indicate the political insecurity of the office -- although it comes as no great surprise here, considering that the republic has had as many as 40 prime ministers over the past 60 years.

From the military takeover to the democratic reforms late in the 1980s, any student of South Korean politics must have determined the state intelligence chief to be the most powerful official under the president, practically licensed to interfere with any government function in the name of “interdepartmental coordination.” Even after the transition, the civilian heads of government have been tempted to use the “expertise” of the intelligence agency to find easier ways to achieve their political goals, such as in elections.

The tripartite organization of the KCIA -- renamed the Agency for National Security Planning in 1981 and then the NIS in 1999 -- whose branches handled domestic and international intelligence operations and inter-Korean relations, had know-how and resources that could be used for any political project, legitimate or not. When the president decided that the great cause of national security was relevant to a case, the intelligence outfit was there to provide the right instruments.

Most recently, four out of the five NIS chiefs during the conservative Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations have been put in prison as part of the Moon Jae-in government’s campaign of washing away past wrongs. Won Sei-hoon, a protege of Lee Myung-bak, has entered the ninth year of his imprisonment for power abuse and corruption, with five more years to go. Nam Jae-joon, Lee Byung-gi and Lee Byung-ho were all jailed, chiefly for colluding with Park Geun-hye on the diversion of intelligence funds.

These are rather insignificant dots in the annals of the historic roles that South Korea’s spy chiefs have played since the 1960s. Among them were Lee Hu-rak, who secretly visited Pyongyang at the height of inter-Korean conflict to get Kim Il-sung’s consent to a declaration of rapprochement in 1972; Kim Hyung-wook, who turned against President Park Chung-hee to reveal his misdeeds to a US congressional hearing on “Koreagate” before mysteriously disappearing in Paris; and Kim Jae-kyu, who shot Park to death in 1979.

Civilian governments, under mounting pressure from civil society, took steps to reduce political interference from the intelligence agency, particularly during election periods. But power groups were unable to refrain completely from attempting to influence public sentiment by arousing tensions with North Korea through border-area skirmishes, which opposition members called “North wind campaigns.” Kwon Young-hae, under President Kim Young-sam, tried to discredit opposition presidential candidate Kim Dae-jung with forged signs of the North’s tilt on him.

Despite open and hidden harassment, “DJ” Kim was elected in 1997, and his close confidant Park Jie-won made clandestine contact with the North Koreans to push the government’s “Sunshine Policy” of engaging with the North, which culminated in the first-ever inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in 2000. The intelligence agency continued its cross-border work to arrange a second summit in 2007.

A sort of freeze in relations between the two Koreas came during the right-wing administrations of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party took power in 2017 and Park Jie-won remained a nonmainstream leftist, joining and leaving some minor parties until he was finally defeated in the 2020 general election in his hometown, Mokpo, by a novice candidate from the ruling party.

When Moon appointed Park Jie-won as NIS director in July, surprised observers discerned the president’s strong wish to rekindle serious dialogue with Pyongyang during the rest of his tenure, laying high expectations on Park’s reputation in the North as an efficient negotiator. But many were worried that a flamboyant politician was given a job that requires a high degree of prudence and insight.

Park has trapped himself into a possible political scandal for his close connection to a young female rabble rouser. The prosecution and the Corruption Investigation Office are probing the case but I believe that the burden of proof rests with Park in this affair because of what he represents in this administration. He can blame the checkered history of South Korea’s state intelligence agency and his many predecessors for having earned the meager public trust that he sees today in the NIS.


Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He was head of the Korea Overseas Information Service during the Kim Dae-jung administration. -- Ed.

By Korea Herald (koreaherald@heraldcorp.com)
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