Is Seoul Prepared to Deal with the N.Korean Spy Threat?

      April 22, 2010 13:21

      President Lee Myung-bak on Wednesday said the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan near the tense maritime border with North Korea is a wake-up call to the dangers South Korea faces. "Sixty years after the division, I think the military has gotten caught up in old habits," Lee said in a meeting with officials. "We must use this crisis to realize that we live just less than 40 miles from one of the world's most belligerent countries."

      In an interview with the Chosun Ilbo, Hwang Jang-yop, a former secretary of the North's ruling Workers' Party and chairman of the Supreme People's Assembly, who is the highest-ranking defector from the communist country, spoke about the arrest of two North Korean agents who had been sent to assassinate him. "There are probably more agents somewhere out there whose mission is assassination," he said.

      Previous administrations used the head of the National Intelligence Service, whose job should be catching North Korean agents and protecting national security, as secret envoys instead to set up summits with the North. They also cut the number of public security experts at the prosecutor's office and the police almost by half and forced experienced officials to resign by denying them promotion. As a result, the number of arrests of North Korean agents dropped from nine in 1998 to three in 2000, two in 2002 and just one in 2005, showing that counterespionage officials had virtually stopped doing their jobs.

      But the NIS said in a report to the National Assembly in 2005 that it had detected 670 orders sent by North Korea to agents in the South over the previous five years. Military intelligence officials told the defense minister in 2008 that there were around 170 communist sympathizers within the South's military, around 50 soldiers caught passing on classified information, and internal probes focusing on 100 such cases.

      A North Korean spy ring nabbed in 2006 consisted of agents who had infiltrated various areas of South Korean society as staff of high-tech companies, a developer of English teaching materials, a private crammer and even political parties. There is a strong possibility that the agents North Korea has planted in South Korean society over the last 10 years have grown into real threats to the South.

      A military officer who passed on sensitive information to a female North Korean spy in 2008 failed to report her to authorities. The woman had toured military bases to give troops lessons on national security by playing CDs praising the North Korean regime. The NIS even tried to recruit her as a source. Right now, the Internet is overflowing with posts claiming that the South Korean government is fabricating information to pin the sinking of the Cheonan on North Korea. All of this is the result of laid-back attitude among South Koreans to the North Korean threat.

      The government must take a careful look at whether there are more North Korean hit squads in the South, and whether Seoul has the will, ability and manpower to sniff them out.

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