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Do Blunders Mean South Korea's Spying Apparatus Is Broken?

A man watches a TV screen showing a file picture of Ri Yong Gil, the former head of North Korea's military, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, May 11, 2016.
A man watches a TV screen showing a file picture of Ri Yong Gil, the former head of North Korea's military, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, May 11, 2016.

When it comes to spying on North Korea, rival South Korea seems to be wrong almost as much as it's right.

Seoul's intelligence agents get battered in the press and by lawmakers for their gaffes, including one regarding Ri Yong Gil, the former head of North Korea's military. Officials in Seoul's National Intelligence Service, the country's main spy agency, reportedly said Ri had been executed, but at this month's ruling-party congress, he was seen not only alive but also in possession of several new titles.

While spying on perhaps the world's most cloistered, suspicious, difficult-to-read country is no easy task, repeated blunders raise questions about whether South Korea's multibillion-dollar spying apparatus is broken.

Knowing what's happening in North Korea is crucial for the South, whose capital city, Seoul, is within easy striking range of thousands of North Korean missiles bristling along the world's most heavily armed border. But it's also important for the United States and Japan, who rely in part on South Korean spies for details about the North and its push for nuclear-armed missiles.

There's no single answer for what's going wrong, but the mistakes have been linked to the closed nature of North Korea, the way information is verified and disseminated, and agents' alleged penchant for playing politics and for choosing face-saving over gathering solid information.

Internal South Korean politics and the near-constant state of animosity between the Koreas also play a part.

A decade of liberal government rule in Seoul that encouraged regular travel to the North by South Korean diplomats, government and business leaders, reporters, aid groups and others ended in early 2008. Those exchanges have crumbled under conservatives, who have ruled for nearly a decade and are deemed hostile by the North.

This means that spies don't have the same high-quality information that was once gathered by South Koreans previously in constant contact with the North, according to Kim Kwang Jin, an opposition lawmaker from the National Assembly's intelligence committee, which regularly receives closed-door briefings from senior National Intelligence Service officials.

The ruling conservatives blame liberals, who they say drastically downsized espionage operations that have been difficult to rebuild.

The way spies release information could also be a problem.

The NIS gives closed briefings to lawmakers, who then relay what they hear to South Korean press. Foreign media commonly cite those local reports, but by that point the information has passed through several hands. That makes it difficult to gauge the NIS's level of certainty, understand how the information was obtained or determine how reliable its sources are.

When spies leak information directly to the local press, they usually demand that reporters refer to them only as "a source familiar with North Korea affairs.'' This allows the NIS and other South Korean spy agencies to deny they were the source if the information is bad, which is what's currently happening in the Ri case.

There's also criticism that wild stories about the North, whether originating with spies or others, are meant to serve a political purpose.

Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at South Korea's Sejong Institute, said intelligence authorities under back-to-back conservative governments have tended to disclose incomplete, unverified information about North Korea if they thought it would justify South Korea's hard line policy by portraying North Korea as an unstable, dangerous country. This explains embarrassments like the Ri case, he said, and underlines the need to get multiple sources to verify information, even if it's coming from someone in Pyongyang.

South Korean spies are thought to closely monitor Pyongyang's media for details, to talk to defectors in Seoul, especially those who claim sources in North Korea, and to cultivate contacts in the North. The problem is that it's unclear how reliable the sources are.

A spokesman for the opposition Minjoo Party, Park Kwang-on, called the decision by South Korean spies to publicize rumors about Ri's execution "absurd'' and "shameful.'' "But what matters more is their lax intelligence capacity,'' which "is directly related to national security,'' he said.

The NIS, founded in 1961 by current President Park Geun-hye's dictator father, Park Chung-hee, was linked to the detention, torture and alleged killing of the elder Park's political opponents. After Park was killed in 1979 - by his spy chief - other abuses occurred under his successors.

Recent criticism comes mostly from failures over North Korea intelligence. For instance, South Korean spies only learned about former leader Kim Jong Il's death two days after it occurred, in December 2011, when Pyongyang's state TV announced it.

Some have accused South Korea's spies of playing politics. When South Korean intelligence officials circulated word of Ri's execution, Seoul was under criticism for failing to find out in advance that North Korea had been preparing to conduct its fourth nuclear test in January. The news also came a day after the government announced that it would suspend operations at a jointly run factory park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong.

"If the government discloses information on Ri Yong Gil's execution to try to create a public sentiment favorable for withdrawing from the Kaesong complex, we cannot help but say that they are foolish,'' South Korea's biggest-circulation newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, said Wednesday in an editorial. "Using shallow tricks definitely brings out disaster.''

The editorial also said that if South Korean spies are treating"uncertain information as if it's 100 percent fact, it's a serious problem because it means that they can be fooled by the North's spread of disinformation.''