News / Asia

Former Diplomat Predicts More Provocations by N. Korea

Kim Jong Un, third son of North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il, October 18, 2010. (AP)
Kim Jong Un, third son of North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il, October 18, 2010. (AP)
SEOUL — North Korea is likely again to attack the South by shelling another submarine or landing on a South Korean-held frontier island, a former North Korean diplomat predicted Tuesday.

Provocations

North Korea's provocations towards South Korea “are becoming bolder and more aggressive,” said Ko Young Hwan, now a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Seoul.

Ko worked for North Korea's ministry of foreign affairs from 1978 until he defected in 1991 from his post as first secretary of the North Korean embassy in Congo.

Ko says, in past decades, North Korea relied on guerrilla attacks -- and there were dozens of them after the Korean War ended in 1953 through the 1990s -- to provoke the South, but their provocations “are becoming more like regular warfare.”

South Korea blames North Korea for sinking one of its coastal warships, the ROKS Cheonan, on March 26, 2010 by firing a torpedo at it. North Korea has denied responsibility. Forty-six sailors among the ship's crew of 104 died.

On November 23 of that year North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong island, hitting both military and civilian targets and killing four South Koreans. North Korea said it was responding to a provocative South Korean military drill.

New leader

Ko said the new leader in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un, must establish his own credentials since coming to power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, last December and that has to occur through military operations.

Ko spoke to a group of foreign correspondents at the headquarters of the National Intelligence Service of which the INSS is affiliated.

Alongside Ko was a former high-ranking official of the North Korean government who spoke on the condition he not be identified amid what officials characterize as increased threats by Pyongyang to assassinate such important defectors.

The former government official said U.S. government measures to crack down on North Korea's illicit activities and related offshore bank accounts exposed numerous officials in Pyongyang who had illicit funds. These officials, he said, were purged or executed.

The former official said Kim Jong Un has moved to shift activities for acquiring hard currency internationally from the military to the Cabinet.

It is speculated that North Korea's top military chief, Ri Yong Ho, who was summarily removed from all of his posts in July, because he was suffering from an unspecified illness, may have resisted Kim's action to extract the military from these lucrative activities.

The unnamed former North Korean government official, speaking to reporters at NIS, said it is possible Ri may have been embezzling funds as since the 1990s many officials connected to such economic activities were found to have $500,000 or even $1 million in U.S. currency in their homes.

Spies

Ko was the only person whose comments at NIS headquarters could be quoted and unconditionally attributed. Other briefings and encounters, except for a tour of the intelligence agency's small museum were off the record.

The museum displays items seized over the years from North Korea spies, including guns, radios, poison pens, false passports and a submersible infiltration craft.

A poster informs those visiting they can dial the “111” hotline to alert the NIS of suspected North Korean agents. Similar public advisories about the hotline are also found on the intelligence agency's web site ( http://www.nis.go.kr/ ). Rewards are offered of $450,000 for catching such a spy while a bounty of about $675,000 is the reward for information leading to the apprehension of a spy boat.

A symbolic eternal flame is displayed on a platform in front of a plaque with 48 stars representing the number of NIS agents who have died in the line of duty since 1961 at home and abroad

“Did any of them die in North Korea?” asked one correspondent.

“We can not confirm that,” replied one of the unnamed guides.

Also on display was a 1:12,500 scale model of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

Keeping secrets

The reporters also visited inside NIS the Terrorism Information Integration Center, including its joint counter-terrorism situation room, and the National Cyber Security Center, but were informed not to report on briefings there or what they saw.

Correspondents, as a condition of entry, signed a statement to “not let out a secret to anyone” or they would have to “submit to any kind of punishment, according to law.”

The media group was composed of 26 members of the Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club representing American, British, Chinese, French, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, Taiwanese and Vietnamese news outlets.

The rare but not unprecedented visit is partly seen as an effort by the NIS to improve its image amid repeated criticism for alleged intelligence failures related to North Korea and slipshod field operations.

Intelligence

The NIS, which was founded in 1961 as the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, was renamed the Agency for National Security Planning in 1981 before taking its present name in 1999.

Domestic media reports estimate the NIS' total annual budget appears to total nearly $1 billion.

The international intelligence community and NIS' or its predecessor agencies' own former agents, who have spoken to VOA in recent months, give the South Korean service mixed reviews. Some contend, as have lawmakers here, that its bureaucracy is bloated while having lost many capable intelligence agents in recent decades due to political interference under various administrations.

Some South Korean intelligence field retirees, speaking recently to VOA, singled out Kim Dae-jung, who was president from 1998 to 2003 as having used the agency for political spying, greatly damaging its image and effectiveness.

Kim sought to warm ties with North Korea and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.

The agency under the current administration of conservative President Lee Myung-bak has also faced scrutiny.

Scrutiny

An opposition lawmaker in 2011 accused the agency of leaking inaccurate intelligence about North Korea to cover up cases detrimental to its own interests. The charge was made after the bungled break-in of an Indonesian government official's room at the luxury Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul.

Criticism of NIS intensified at the end of 2011 when, according to domestic press reports, it admitted it was completely unaware of Kim Jong Il's death before the public announcement made by Pyongyang on December 19.

The agency also apparently failed to confirm that new leader Kim Jong Un had been married since 2009 prior to the couple being seen together in North Korean official media photographs and video images in July of this year.

Former North Korean official Ko, when asked by VOA on Tuesday about the perceived intelligence failures, said NIS had successfully predicted Kim Jong Un's succession “but it took some time before it could be announced publicly.”

“The more the South Korean or foreign media report NIS is stupid, dumb or slow-moving, that, in reality, means the better the job the agency is doing,” Ko said.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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