S. Korea's spy agency so politicized, reform urgent: ICG

By Lee Chi-dong

SEOUL, Aug. 6 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's state intelligence agency is so politically oriented that the country should lose no time in taking measures to reform it, a global think tank said Wednesday.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) claimed the National Intelligence Service (NIS) is so susceptible to three types of pathologies -- intelligence failure, the politicization of intelligence and intervention in domestic politics -- as to lose the trust of even its U.S. counterpart.

The group, headquartered in Brussels, emphasized it is urgent for South Korea to introduce legislation and other measures to reform the NIS.

Otherwise, the possibility of intelligence failure on the Korean Peninsula will grow, risking "catastrophic consequences" especially involving the unpredictable North Korea, it said.

In a 55-page report, titled "Risks of Intelligence Pathologies in South Korea," the ICG cited several cases, including the NIS's deliberate leak of secret information on the sudden downfall of Jang Song-thaek, uncle of the North's leader Kim Jong-un, in December 2013.

In what is seen as an attempt to distract public criticism of the NIS, it told a member of the National Assembly's Intelligence Committee that Jang had been purged. The lawmaker immediately made the information public.

In another example, Nam Jae-joon, the first NIS director under the Park Geun-hye administration, released the full transcript of the 2007 inter-Korean summit amid a controversy over then South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun's reported remarks over the Northern Limit Line, the de-facto sea border between the two Koreas.

"The ROK (South Korea) institutions' proclivity to leak classified information has been a serious impediment to intelligence sharing with the U.S. Despite the very close nature of the bilateral alliance, the U.S. has had occasions to feel it cannot share its most sensitive intelligence on North Korea with Seoul," said the ICG.

The non-profit group said the politicization of the NIS was more serious under the leadership of Won Sei-hoon during the Lee Myung-bak administration.

Won allegedly frequently claimed, without providing any clear evidence, that North Korea was on the brink of collapse, affecting the Lee government's policy on Pyongyang, it pointed out. Won is also alleged to have instructed his agents to upload website comments critical of Moon Jae-in, the main opposition party's candidate for the 2012 presidential elections.

"Public suspicions of NIS political activities and electoral intervention undermined confidence in the agency and its legal obligation to maintain neutrality in domestic politics," the ICG said. "Efforts are needed to reform the South's intelligence capacities, principally by depoliticizing its agencies and ensuring adequate legislative and judicial oversight."

Daniel Pinkston, the main author of the report, stressed the importance of trust, transparency and political neutrality of a state intelligence organization.

A politicized spy agency can influence decision-making by senior government officials, including the president, and increase the possibility of bad policy choices, he said.

"But no intelligence service is perfect. So we just have to try to make it as best as possible," Pinkston, director of the ICG's North East Asia Program, told Yonhap News Agency.

He added the report was written on the basis of interviews with former and current intelligence officials and related experts as well as media reports.

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