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.


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."


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."


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.


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

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
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.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs