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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Asia > North East Asia > Korean Peninsula > Risks of Intelligence Pathologies in South Korea

Risks of Intelligence Pathologies in South Korea

Asia Report N°259 5 Aug 2014


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.


To mitigate risks of intelligence failures, the politicisation of intelligence and the direct intervention of intelligence agencies in domestic politics

To the government of the Republic of Korea:

1.  Revise legislation governing the intelligence community as proposed by the opposition party and the former NIS director, to include:

a) terminating the practice of NIS intelligence officers being embedded and monitoring political parties, lawmakers, mass media and other institutions;

b) establishing and exercising greater oversight of intelligence officers to ensure they do not intervene in domestic politics;

c) establishing an “inspector general” or complaint/compliance centre with whistle-blower protections within the NIS; and

d) ensuring that military information support operations (psychological operations) in cyberspace targeted at North Korea stay clear of ROK domestic politics while protecting the identity and privacy of ROK citizens and institutions.

2.  Revise legislation governing the intelligence community to include:

a)  removing the criminal investigation powers within the NIS and transferring this function to the Supreme Prosecutors Office;

b) requiring the president’s nominee for NIS director to be confirmed by the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee; and

c) establishing a national security court or assign special judges to adjudicate national security cases and to ensure constitutional and civil rights of ROK citizens are protected, and to ensure that national security information is not compromised.

To improve intelligence processes and the impact of intelligence on policymaking

To the government of the Republic of Korea:

3.  Acquire the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) hardware such as Global Hawk surveillance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and space-based platforms for early warning capabilities commensurate with North Korea’s growing asymmetric military threats; and ensure the necessary training to operate the systems.

4.  Sign and ratify an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, or a trilateral intelligence sharing agreement with Japan and the U.S., in order to share, if necessary, intelligence regarding North Korean threats.

5.  Obey and enforce South Korean laws that prohibit the leaking of classified information (for perceived domestic political gains).

Seoul/Brussels, 5 August 2014

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