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, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.

You May Like

UN Watchdog Urges Israel to Probe Possible Gaza War Crimes

More than 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed in a 51-day war in Gaza, along with 67 Israeli soldiers and six civilians in Israel More

New Kenyan 'Thin SIMs' Poised to Transform African Mobile Money

Equity's new technology is approved in African nation for one-year trial, though industry leader Safaricom says thin SIMs could lead to data theft and fraud More

Solar's Future Looks Brighter

New technology and dropping prices are contributing to a surge in solar power 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.
Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
October 25, 2014 4:21 PM
Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukraine

Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.

All About America

AppleAndroid