The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] ‘No friend or foe in intelligence,’ lawmaker says on US leak

Assembly intelligence committee member accuses Moon adminstration of weakening state spy service

By Kim Arin

Published : April 24, 2023 - 18:29

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Rep. Yoo Sang-bum, executive secretary of the parliamentary intelligence committee, speaks to The Korea Herald at his office at the National Assembly in Seoul on April 18. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) Rep. Yoo Sang-bum, executive secretary of the parliamentary intelligence committee, speaks to The Korea Herald at his office at the National Assembly in Seoul on April 18. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

The Pentagon leak suggesting the US was eavesdropping on top South Korean officials is being overblown by the opposition for domestic political gains ahead of President Yoon Suk Yeol’s White House visit, according to the National Assembly intelligence committee’s Executive Secretary Rep. Yoo Sang-bum.

Speaking to The Korea Herald at his office in Seoul’s Yeouido, Yoo of the ruling People Power Party said that a “closed-door” approach to the leak would be appropriate, while criticizing the Moon Jae-in administration for weakening the country’s National Intelligence Service.

“The understood rule is to neither publicly confirm nor deny details of intelligence-gathering activities that have been exposed,” he said. “On intelligence matters, you work behind closed doors, out of the public eye.”

On the Democratic Party of Korea chair Rep. Lee Jae-myung’s demands for an investigation into the alleged spying by the US, Yoo said that not only would such an investigation be implausible, even if it were to be undertaken, its findings would not be suitable to be opened to the public.

Yoo said that the legally troubled opposition leader, with his insistence on pushing a publicized narrative to the diplomatically sensitive issue, was “staging a self-serving public stunt” and “betraying national interest to push domestic political goals.”

On the argument that Yoon moving the presidential office to Yongsan had led to lax security, he pointed out that the previous occupant of the building now used by the president was the Ministry of National Defense. “Problematizing the relocation would imply that during the past administration, our Ministry of National Defense had been slacking on security,” he said.

He said that the answers being sought by his Democratic Party colleagues at the Assembly intelligence committee, such as the layers of security installed around the presidential office, would be considered classified.

“They are not thinking about the harm disclosing such information would inflict, focusing instead on turning this into an opportunity to hold the current administration accountable,” he said.

Nor were the Democratic Party’s calls for making the intelligence leak part of the official agenda at the upcoming summit with US President Joe Biden sensible, he said.

Yoo said that as North Korea is rapidly advancing its nuclear and missile programs, as showcased by the recent test-launch of the new intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-18, issues like strengthening extended deterrence would likely be given higher priority at the table.

“This is the first head of state visit to the US in 12 years, and the anticipation is high for bringing back some concrete achievements,” he said. The summit “should not be a stage for domestic politicization,” he added, which could “jeopardize potential outcomes.”

“When it comes to intelligence, there is no friend or foe,” he went on, referring to the whistleblower disclosures by Edward Snowden, a former intelligence contractor for the US National Security Agency. “Countries do what they can to inform themselves, and to counter the intelligence collection activities of others against them.”

When the Snowden leak in 2013 revealed that the US spied on former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other top European leaders, then-US President Barack Obama apologized. Then not long after, it emerged that Germany’s federal intelligence service, abbreviated as the BND, also snooped on the White House.

“You will remember that these revelations did not damage ties between the US and Germany, which continue to be close and strong allies,” Yoo said.

In 2011, agents for South Korea’s own NIS were caught looking at files on a laptop computer at an Indonesian delegation’s hotel room in Seoul, in an apparent attempt to search for bid secrets in a defense contract.

“Indonesian Economic Minister Hatta Rajasa in response told press then that there had been a misunderstanding,” Yoo said. “Thanks to Indonesia’s consideration and understanding of intelligence-gathering practices, it was settled quietly without escalating into a diplomatic problem. There was trust between the two countries.”

Yoo, however, agreed that the leak makes a case for examining possible weaknesses in South Korea’s security system and strengthening the state intelligence service. As a lawmaker on the intelligence committee, he said he was preparing legislations to do just that.

“I should add that according to German news reports in 2015, South Korea had the cyber capabilities to tap into North Korean networks,” he said.

Citing intelligence sources, some South Korean news outlets said the formation of a Three Eyes Alliance of South Korea, Japan and the US, akin to the Five Eyes -- the intelligence alliance consisting of five English-speaking democracies -- may be brewing.

On the possibility of such trilateral intelligence alliance, Yoo said, “For the Three Eyes to be on par with the Five Eyes, there needs to be in place a very close intelligence-sharing partnership between the countries. To do that, I would say that we still have more work to do in our relationship with Japan.”

He said the Yoon administration was taking steps to get there, restoring the bilateral military intelligence-sharing pact General Security of Military Information Agreement.

“North Korea’s deepening nuclear program makes security cooperation in the region critical now more than ever,” he said. “South Korea, under the current administration, is seeking to advance diplomacy based on shared norms and values to keep the growing security threats in check.”

He floated possibly increasing exchange between the parliamentary intelligence committees of South Korea and the US, which he said “hasn’t been active.” The last time the US House intelligence committee members visited South Korea was in February 2017.

He said that the North Korea operations and the intelligence functions of the NIS, compromised under the preceding Moon administration, were being restored with Yoon in office. The exposure of possible North Korean spy rings in the past few months were “case in point.”

“Underground groups helping North Korean spy rings were found all over the country from South Gyeongsang Province to Jeju,” he said. The common pattern with these groups is that their secret contact points were abroad, mainly in Southeast Asia.

“Naturally our intelligence service is working with the intelligence services of other countries to trace spies for North Korea,” he said.

“After the Moon administration and the then-ruling Democratic Party took away the NIS’ power to investigate North Korean espionage, the police are to be left solely in charge. The problem is, the police do not have the intelligence networks necessary to carry out these tasks.”

The NIS and the police launched a joint investigation bureau to respond to North Korean espionage and other covert threats to run until the end of this year. From January next year, however, the NIS will lose its authority to track and target North Korean spies, which will be handed over to the police under the law passed unilaterally by the majority-holding Democratic Party.

Yoo said the loss of the investigative authority was not the only hurdle placed by the Moon administration to hold the NIS back from doing what it is supposed to do.

“While Moon was in power, the NIS neglected its duties of intelligence-gathering and counterintelligence against North Korea and degenerated into an agency supporting the previous president’s North Korea appeasement policies,” he said.

“Our agents, who should have been serving the country undercover, were mobilized to help with North Korea negotiations and assist high-level North Korean delegation,” he said. “Several hundreds” of agents who were in charge of North Korean espionage investigations were forced out or removed from duties under the last administration, weakening the NIS’ capabilities, he added.

In July last year, about two months after Yoon assumed office, the NIS filed criminal complaints against two of its former chiefs appointed by Moon -- Suh Hoon and Park Jie-won -- for allegedly attempting to cover up North Korea controversies.

The NIS accused Suh of dropping the investigation into the 2019 forced repatriation of two young North Korean defectors and Park of destroying records related to the 2020 death of a South Korean fisheries official fatally shot by North Korean troops at sea.

“Both former heads of the NIS are now being tried in court. The top Moon officials who transformed the NIS into a window for inter-Korean dialogue from an intelligence agency will have to face the full penalty of the law and history’s judgment,” he said.

On Yoon ordering “psychological warfare” against North Korea, Yoo said that he believes human rights atrocities were the Kim Jong-un regime’s “sore spot.”

“The North Korean regime reacts sensitively every time the international community calls out human rights violations suffered by its people,” he said.

He said that the NIS was keeping tabs on the human rights situation in North Korea, using human intelligence and other sources.

“Our intelligence service considers it natural to practice psychological warfare against North Korea, targeting all residents of North Korea, with the goal of pressuring the Kim Jong-un regime,” he said.

Yoo, who is currently serving as ruling party’s chief spokesperson, was a top prosecutor before he was elected into the Assembly in 2020.