News / Asia

Seoul Still Quiet After Spying Debacle

Lotte Hotel & Resorts in Seoul, South Korea, May 4, 2011
Lotte Hotel & Resorts in Seoul, South Korea, May 4, 2011

An incident at a luxury hotel in South Korea has given a rare public glimpse into the world of international espionage. Agents of the country’s National Intelligence Service, in February, allegedly broke into a hotel room of a member of a delegation representing Indonesia’s president.

South Korean authorities are remaining tight-lipped, two-and-a-half months after the mysterious break-in of Room 1961 at Seoul’s Lotte Hotel.

What happened

Domestic media say three agents of the intelligence service were discovered inside the downtown five-star hotel, tampering with laptop computers of a visiting Indonesian delegation. The trio, reportedly composed of two men and one woman, managed to escape.

At the time of the February 16 break-in, the delegation, led by Indonesia’s chief economics minister, was at a meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.   

The two countries were negotiating a deal involving the export of defense technology to Indonesia, including supersonic trainer jets.

Who's responsible

Dankook University political science professor emeritus Jung Yong-suk says he has "no doubt" who was responsible for the break-in.

Jung says it was certainly conducted by South Korea’s spy agency. He says it should be considered industrial espionage, rather than political spying.

Jung explains this is something South Korea’s government has focused on intensely for years, because the country depends heavily on exports. The professor says South Korea faces a lot of competition among export-dependent countries and to stay ahead of the game, industrial spying is essential and encouraged. The intelligence agency, he asserts, did what it had to do but unfortunately got caught in the act.

Denial

Officials at the National Intelligence Service, in response to queries by VOA and other media organizations, have repeatedly denied its agents were responsible for the bungled break-in, but say the NIS will not issue an official comment.

A member of South Korea’s intelligence community, speaking to VOA on condition of anonymity, confirms that the incident has prompted his colleagues to question the professionalism of some of their peers.

The national police commissioner, Cho Hyun-oh, told reporters that punishing those responsible would not be practical if it turned out they were South Korean intelligence operatives. He cited "the national interest."

Embarrassment


A former U.S. intelligence official and a retired diplomat, both of whom have worked in the region but do not want to be further identified, term the incident a huge embarrassment for South Korea. They say such "black bag" operations occur all of the time, but that operatives rarely get caught because of adequate surveillance of the targeted site. The officials express surprise that the incident was bungled and became public.

The executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington, veteran CIA operations officer Peter Earnest, explains that such clandestine operations have become increasingly common.

"With globalization and global competitiveness we're going to see even more of it," Earnest said. "A number of other governments are quite prepared to use their government intelligence apparatus to support their leading industries."

Criticism

The South Korean spy agency has faced withering media criticism here, not for what it was trying to do at the Lotte Hotel, but rather for getting caught.  

Several prominent newspapers, as well as politicians across the political spectrum, called for the resignation of Won Sei-hoon, the chief of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.

President Lee last month replaced two of the agency’s three deputy directors.

The incident also has tarnished the reputation of one of Seoul’s most prestigious hotels. A spokesman for the Lotte Hotel acknowledges the incident took place but will not comment further, saying it is under investigation by the police.  He says there has been no drop in bookings as a result of the negative publicity.

Collusion?

Professor Jung of Dankook University says he is certain the hotel colluded with the spy agency.

Jung says this is because of South Korea’s unique security situation. The country has been facing unceasing threats from North Korea for more than half a century, he explains, noting that South Koreans have a mindset of protecting national security. Thus the hotel’s security department, he says, would have willingly accepted the request from the intelligence agency, not because of government pressure or any financial inducements.

Former CIA operative Earnest, who spent two decades in the agency’s clandestine service, warns that any high-profile guest checking into a hotel anywhere should assume that items left in rooms may be scrutinized by government spies.

"If that service wants a key to the room and with a 'wink and a nod' gain entry, that hotel is, in all likelihood, not going to pose an objection," Earnest said. "If there is a safe in the room, you can probably leave your wallet in there and other things. However, it doesn't mean it's not going to be looked at by people who could gain access."

But intelligence insiders, such as Earnest, put part of the blame for what happened in Room 1961 at the Lotte Hotel on the Indonesians. They say no hotel guests with confidential papers should let those materials out of their sight, and that laptop computers should be carried with them, not left in the room for prying eyes.


Steve Herman

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

You May Like

This US Epidemic Keeps Getting Worse

One in 4 Americans suffers from this condition More

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thoughti
X
George Putic
May 26, 2015 9:26 PM
Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video US-led Coalition Gives Some Weapons to Iraqi Troops

In a video released Tuesday from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition troops survey a cache of weapons supplied to help Iraq liberate Mosul from Islamic State group. According to a statement provided with the video, the ministry and the U.S.-led coaltion troops have started ''supplying the 16th army division with medium and light weapons in preparation to liberate Mosul and nearby areas from Da'esh (Arabic acronym for Islamic State group).''
Video

Video Amnesty International: 'Overwhelming Evidence' of War Crimes in Ukraine

Human rights group Amnesty International says there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes in Ukraine, despite a tentative cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels. Researchers interviewed more than 30 prisoners from both sides of the conflict and all but one said they were tortured. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Washington Parade Honors Those Killed Serving in US Military

Every year, on the last Monday in the month of May, millions of Americans honor the memories of those killed while serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day is a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century. While many people celebrate the federal holiday with a barbecue and a day off from work, for those who’ve served in the military, it’s a special day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Arash Arabasadi reports for VOA from Washington.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.

VOA Blogs