Risks of Intelligence Pathologies in South Korea
Seoul/Brussels | 5 Aug 2014
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.
A series of intelligence scandals has plagued South Korea since the fall of 2012, exposing the risk of intelligence failure, the politicisation of intelligence and direct intervention by intelligence agencies in domestic politics. In its latest report, Risks of Intelligence Pathologies in South Korea, the International Crisis Group examines measures needed to reduce those vulnerabilities and explains why failure or manipulation of intelligence in South Korea could have serious consequences for security on the peninsula and beyond.
The report’s major findings and recommendations are:
- With both Koreas ramping up their military capabilities, sound intelligence is crucial to manage tensions and reduce the risk of conflict, or to respond effectively if a crisis erupts. Should intelligence failure lead to military conflict, the costs would be enormous. Due to South Korea’s defence treaty with the U.S., it would trigger immediate U.S. involvement. A similar treaty between North Korea and China could elicit Chinese military intervention. Moreover, sound intelligence is needed for non-conflict scenarios, such as the North’s collapse or a humanitarian crisis.
- Four broad reforms, independently identified by the main opposition party and the former National Intelligence Service (NIS) director, need to be implemented: 1) ending the embedding of NIS officers in South Korean institutions such as political parties, the legislature, ministries and media firms; 2) establishing greater oversight to ensure intelligence officers obey the law; 3) providing greater protection for whistle-blowers; and 4) restricting cyberspace operations to North Korean entities and not South Korean citizens or institutions.
- These should be complemented by institutional reforms. Criminal investigation powers held by the NIS should be transferred to the Supreme Prosecutors Office. NIS directors should receive confirmation from the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee following presidential nomination. Consideration could be given to forming special courts to handle sensitive national security cases while ensuring appropriate respect for due process.
“South Korea’s ability to use tactical intelligence will be vitally important during a crisis or escalation. But it is no less important for other scenarios,” says Daniel Pinkston, Deputy North East Asia Project Director. “In case of a North Korean state collapse and a sudden unification, Seoul would have to make quick decisions to prevent a rapid deterioration of the situation”.