When it comes to spying on North Korea, rival South Korea seems to be wrong almost as much as it’s right.
Seoul’s intelligence agents get battered in the press and by lawmakers for their gaffes, including one regarding Ri Yong Gil, the former head of North Korea’s military. Officials in Seoul’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), the country’s main spy agency, reportedly said Ri had been executed, but at this month’s ruling-party congress, he was seen not only alive but also in possession of several new titles.
While spying on perhaps the world’s most cloistered, suspicious, difficult-to-read country is no easy task, repeated blunders raise questions about whether South Korea’s multibillion-dollar spying apparatus is broken.
South Korean spies are thought to closely monitor Pyongyang’s media for details, to talk to defectors in Seoul, especially those who claim sources in North Korea, and to cultivate contacts in the North. The problem is that it’s unclear how reliable the sources are.
The NIS gives closed briefings to lawmakers, who then relay what they hear to South Korean press. Foreign media commonly cite those local reports, but by that point the information has passed through several hands. That makes it difficult to gauge the NIS’s level of certainty, understand how the information was obtained or determine how reliable its sources are.
When spies leak information directly to the local press, they usually demand that reporters refer to them only as “a source familiar with North Korea affairs.” This allows the NIS and other South Korean spy agencies to deny they were the source if the information is bad, which is what’s currently happening in the Ri case.