South Korea's handling of intelligence and classified information once again in the spotlight in the wake of the mysterious sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan. Officials proved as ready as ever to leak anything they knew and lawmakers were accused of abusing their privilege to access classified information. Cheong Wa Dae, meanwhile, embarrassed itself by publicly speculating about the timing of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's visit to China.
◆ Cheong Wa Dae Intelligence Blunder
Presidential spokeswoman Kim Eun-hye told reporters on Mar. 31 that Kim's visit to China could be imminent. "There is a high possibility and we are monitoring the situation," Kim said. Another high-ranking Cheong Wa Dae official confirmed the comments.
Critics say it was diplomatically inappropriate for the government of a third country to comment about a summit between the leaders of two other nations, but Cheong Wa Dae made the bold announcement of a trip that has yet to materialize. Apparently unfazed by the humiliation, National Intelligence chief Won Sei-hoon told lawmakers on Tuesday, "Kim Jong-il is likely to visit China around April 25." Now, the NIS has voluntarily put itself to the test. Lawmakers immediately went public with the comments of the NIS director, who was speaking in a closed-door meeting.
◆ Secrets Revealed
Rep. Kim Hak-song, who heads the National Assembly's Defense Committee, unveiled classified data showing the daily movements of two North Korean submarines between March 23 to 27 and mentioned the South Korean military's knowledge of communication between one of those subs and the base. It was an admission that South Korea has been eavesdropping on North Korean communications and gives the North a prime insight into how much the South knows.
The U.S. and South Korean militaries share classified information about North Korean troop and other movements about which the lawmaker had been briefed the previous day. South Korean military officers were astounded by the lawmaker's revelation. "This will weaken our credibility with the U.S., which shares intelligence with us, while prompting North Korea to take steps to change its operating methods," an officer said.
◆ Confusion in Government
Having been briefed by the military about the movements of the two North Korean submarines around the time of the shipwreck, Kim said the subs moved to different locations. But Cheong Wa Dae said heavy cloud cover made it difficult to determine their positions and it was not sure whether they had moved. The National Assembly committee and Cheong Wa Dae came to different conclusions over the same piece of intelligence information. This apparent discord led to the revelation of a handwritten memo from Cheong Wa Dae to Defense Minister Kim Tae-young, cautioning him to stick to the presidential office's line when talking to lawmakers.
◆ Unnecessary Secrecy
The military's reluctance to reveal details about the sinking immediately after the tragedy stoked public distrust and then prompted the revelation of intelligence that should not have been disclosed. Initially, the military tried not to reveal images of the sinking taken by thermal imaging devices, saying that the pictures were hazy or that the revelation would expose the South's monitoring capabilities. But it ended up showing the clips on three different occasions when faced with mounting public suspicion of a cover-up. After the second batch of footage was revealed, the military said there were no more pictures left to show but ended up showing more, saying it had no idea that additional footage taken from a sentry post had been automatically stored in a computerized system. If that excuse was correct, it would mean that the military has no idea how its own monitoring equipment is being put to use.
Now, the military is under mounting pressure to reveal the communications log of the Cheonan. In response to these demands, Grand National Party lawmaker Kim Jang-soo, an ex-defense minister, warned disclosing it would end up exposing the South's secret codes to North Korea.