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.

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