North Korean spies appear to be gathering the private information of potential South Korean presidential candidates, the National Intelligence Service told lawmakers Wednesday.
An NIS official confirmed the story when asked by Grand National Party lawmaker Lee Doo-ah in the National Assembly's Intelligence Committee whether he knew that North Korea runs a secret organization gathering personal information including the financial holdings and policies of main opposition party leader Sohn Hak-kyu and presidential contenders in the GNP. "In situations like this, North Korea has traditionally operated taskforces," the official said. "We have confirmed that a directive has been issued [by the North Korean regime] to report on issues related to the election."
Choi Jae-sung of the Democratic Party said, "It's true that North Korea's top echelons have issued orders to gather information related to the elections, but they gave them to a spy organization and not to a taskforce."
North Korea has traditionally stepped up pressure on South Korea ahead of general and presidential elections to increase public jitters and sway votes in favor of dovish candidates. Some political groups even used clandestine measures to get North Korea to ratchet up the pressure.
Lawmakers criticized the NIS in the hearing for mistakenly reporting that Kim Jong-un accompanied his father on his latest visit to China on May 20. "We were told by Chinese officials of Kim Jong-il's visit on the morning the trip began and shared this information with Cheong Wa Dae," the NIS official said, suggesting the presidential office was responsible for the inaccurate announcement.
Asked why it took the NIS nine hours to correct the report, which was covered widely by both local and foreign media, the NIS official said, "This was the first time China informed us of a visit from Kim Jong-il, and they asked us to keep the information under wraps. We could not correct the media reports until the visit became widely known."
The NIS official said Kim Jong-un is increasing his influence not only in the military and state security but also in economic and inter-Korean affairs. "The North is boosting efforts to create a mythical aura around him, for example by setting up signs reminding the public that it is a blessing to honor the younger Kim as their leader." But he added Kim Jong-un's kudos was dented by the failed currency reform and the regime's failure to build 100,000 new homes in Pyongyang.
Asked about North Korea's attempts to hack into South Korean computer networks, NIS chief Won Sei-hoon said, "North Korea will launch a full-fledged terror attack against our computer systems, like the virus attack against [agricultural lender] Nonghyup, and the targets will be national infrastructure facilities, such as air transport, finance, power supply and transportation."
Won urged lawmakers to revise cyber security laws to help bolster South Korea's defenses against such attacks.
But he dismissed suggestions that the North could conduct another nuclear test soon. "Do you think North Korea would conduct another nuclear test at a time when it is trying to receive aid from the international community to solve its food shortage?" he said.