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

Pundits Split Over Long-Term US Role in Afghanistan

Security pact remains condition for American presence beyond 2014; deadline criticized More

US Eyes Islamic State Threat

Officials warn that IS could pose a threat to US homeland More

Video Ukraine: Captured Troops Proof of Russian Role in Separatist Fight

Moscow says Russian troops crossed into Ukrainian territory by mistake 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 Unlock Mystery of Bird Flocksi
X
George Putic
August 25, 2014 4:00 PM
How can flocks of birds, schools of fish or herds of antelope suddenly change direction -- all the individuals adjusting their movement in concert, at seemingly the same time? British researchers now have some insights into this behavior, which has puzzled scientists for a long time. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video Scientists Unlock Mystery of Bird Flocks

How can flocks of birds, schools of fish or herds of antelope suddenly change direction -- all the individuals adjusting their movement in concert, at seemingly the same time? British researchers now have some insights into this behavior, which has puzzled scientists for a long time. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ukraine: Captured Troops Proof of Russian Role in Separatist Fight

Ukrainian officials say they have captured Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory -- the latest accusation of Moscow's involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the Ukrainian side of the battle, where soldiers are convinced of Russia's role.
Video

Video Rubber May Soon Come From Dandelions

Synthetic rubber has been around for more than a century, but quality tires for cars, trucks and aircraft still need up to 40 percent or more natural rubber content. As the source of natural rubber, the rubber tree, is prone to disease and can be affected by bad weather. So scientists are looking for replacements. And as VOA’s George Putic reports, they may have found one in a ubiquitous weed.
Video

Video Jewish Life in Argentina Reflected in Yiddish Tango

Jewish people from across Europe and Russia have been immigrating to Argentina for hundreds of years. They brought with them dance music that were eventually mixed with Argentine tango. The result is Yiddish tango -- a fusion of melodies and cultural experiences that is still evolving today. Elizabeth Lee reports from the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, where one band is bringing Yiddish tango to an American audience.
Video

Video Peace Returns to Ferguson as Community Tries to Heal

Thousands of people nationwide are expected to attend funeral services Monday in the U.S. Midwestern city of St. Louis, Missouri, for Michael Brown, the unarmed African-American teenager who was fatally shot by a white police officer August 9 in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. The shooting touched off days of violent demonstrations there, resulting in more than 100 arrests. VOA's Chris Simkins reports from Ferguson where the community is trying to move on after weeks of racial tension.
Video

Video Meeting in Minsk May Hinge on Putin Story

The presidents of Russia and Ukraine are expected to meet face-to-face Tuesday in Minsk, along with European leaders, for talks on the situation in Ukraine. Political analysts say the much welcomed dialogue could help bring an end to months of deadly clashes between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian forces in the country's southeast. But much depends on the actions of one man, Russian President Vladimir Putin. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Artists Shun Russia's Profanity Law

Russia in July enacted a law threatening fines for publicly displayed profanity in media, films, literature, music and theater. The restriction, the toughest since the Soviet era, aims to protect the Russian language and culture and has been welcomed by those who say cursing is getting out of control. But many artists reject the move as a patronizing and ineffective act of censorship in line with a string of conservative morality laws. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video British Fighters on Frontline of ISIS Information War

Security services are racing to identify the Islamic State militant who beheaded U.S. journalist James Foley in Syria. The murderer spoke English on camera with a British accent. It’s estimated that several hundred British citizens are fighting for the Islamic State, also called ISIL or ISIS, alongside thousands of other foreign jihadists. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from the center of the investigation in London.

AppleAndroid