NIS Incompetence Hurts the National Interest

      February 22, 2011 13:39

      The people who broke into the hotel room of a visiting high-level Indonesian delegation were apparently National Intelligence Service agents. Two men and a woman broke into the room of the delegation at around 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday just after the visitors had left to meet President Lee Myung-bak at Chong Wa Dae.

      But one of the Indonesian officials discovered them searching through a laptop computer in the hotel room, and they fled. The Indonesian ambassador visited the Foreign Ministry on Monday to complain about the break-in and demand the truth about it. The NIS agents were apparently trying to gather information about Indonesian negotiating strategy in the possible purchase of Korea's T-50 supersonic trainer jet. Korea is competing against Russia and its Y-130 trainer jet.

      The NIS may claim that the operation was carried out for the sake of the national interest, but it had the exact opposite effect. Not only has a possible US$1 billion export deal involving the T-50 trainer -- the largest in the history of Korea's defense exports -- been negatively affected, but dark clouds have formed in diplomatic relations with Indonesia, which is Korea's 10th-largest trading partner and sixth-largest investment destination.

      Diplomatic circles in Korea is already abuzz with the opinion that the NIS made a huge blunder. At the crux of the issue are both the unethical nature of the break-in and the NIS' utter incompetence.

      In June last year, an NIS agent in Libya who did not speak a word of Arabic was caught by Libyan authorities conducting intelligence-gathering activities through an interpreter. He was deported for spying, and Libyan diplomats left Korea for a while in a show of protest, drastically chilling relations.

      The NIS is not doing its job properly when it comes to gathering intelligence on North Korea either. It failed to detect any signs prior to North Korea's attack on the Navy corvette Cheonan in March last year, and created confusion after the incident by pointing the finger at causes other than the North. As a result, the government wasted crucial time in responding to the provocation.

      When the North shelled Yeonpyeong Island last November, the NIS appeared to be passing the blame on the presidential office by telling lawmakers it had warned Cheong Wa Dae of the possible North Korean attack three months before it happened, but when Cheong Wa Dae denied this it backpedalled, saying the information it provided was not enough to be specific.

      In short, the NIS shines neither at gathering intelligence or making sound decisions based on the data it has collected. It is failing to play its role in protecting the nation and wasting resources with its inability to do its job properly. All of this could have been foreseen when the reins of the agency were handed over to a provincial bureaucrat with no experience in the field who happened to be a close confidant of the president's. Lee must either reshuffle the NIS leadership or order agents to stay in their offices. That is the best way to serve the nation's interests.

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