Pic courtesy: http://www.ccny.cuny.edu
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.
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.
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.