30.07.2021 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Old and New Scandals Surrounding the South Korean Intelligence Service


The Republic of Korea’s intelligence agency has changed its name and motto several times, but this has not boosted its reputation.  The scandals associated with its previous leadership have not gone away, and new ones have piled on top of those.

Let’s start with the old ones, because the “case of trolls in uniform”, and other stories about how the intelligence services were involved in collecting information illegally, are still reaping what they sowed in the form of news about the latest verdict delivered by the courts.

The author would like to briefly touch upon what the case was about. The main story is about how Won Sei-hoon, the director of the National Intelligence Service from 2009-2013 under then President Lee Myung-bak, gave direct instructions to his subordinates to manipulate Internet comments to influence public opinion in the run-up to the presidential elections held in 2012. Won Sei-hoon is currently serving a prison sentence on several charges, including organizing smear campaigns against liberal politicians (most notably incumbent President Moon Jae-in) and siphoning agency funds to bribe Lee’s entourage and help lend support to right-wing NGOs. What this means is an established practice, and one in which the intelligence agency paid the presidential aides so that whenever the first person tried to check the veracity of incoming information they all nodded in agreement, thereby putting the president in an information cocoon.

And then, in South Korea registering a smartphone requires the owner to have a registration number, and this allows all activities to be tracked. And the authorities have been caught repeatedly using this data to accomplish political ends. In 2014, the police collected personal information from thousands of social security recipients to track down the graffiti artist who sprayed messages directed against Park Geun-hye. That same year, a military intelligence unit spied on the families of victims in the Sewol ferry disaster after they criticized the government’s response to the vessel’s sinking. Using military spyware, the intelligence services eavesdropped on their private conversations.

In 2015, the NIS came under fire for purchasing digital spyware that is secretly installed on a target’s phone or computer to gain access to messages, calls, and location data. Although the agency stated that it only used it against North Korean spies, several media outlets reported that there was evidence that the spyware was bought for purposes inside the country.

In July 2019, a UN special rapporteur even visited South Korea to investigate allegations of intelligence organizations conducting surveillance on citizens and illegally collecting data on them, as well as other breaches of confidentiality – so the issue of reforming the intelligence services was pressing and, when speaking about this, President Moon Jae-in did not set only political/populist objectives for himself.

Reforming the intelligence services was one of Moon’s principal campaign promises. In conformance with the changes made to the law governing the NIS at the end of 2020, the intelligence agency is prohibited from doing any work domestically. Instead, it is supposed to focus its resources on gathering information related to North Korea and foreign policy interests. Regarding the obligation to transfer the power to investigate any illegal pro-Pyongyang activities to the police, this year the two agencies are conducting a joint investigation that has the aim of completing the transition by the end of 2023.

Those who made trouble for Moon, and vilified him, were naturally punished. On February 7, 2020, Won Sei-hoon was sentenced to seven years in prison for spending taxpayer money to meddle in domestic politics, and to pay government funds to civilians to write comments on the Internet that put conservatives in a favorable light.  In April 2018, the Supreme Court upheld his four-year prison sentence, but the investigation was reopened after an internal investigation at the NIS revealed documents that suggest that the espionage agency was running 30 teams of hackers, and spent billions of taxpayers’ won to pay civilians and intelligence service retirees who were hired to write disparaging comments online about liberal public figures.

On September 28, 2020, former deputy intelligence director Lee Jong-myung was handed a prison sentence for illegally spending taxpayer money on political projects for the conservative administration of former president Lee Myung-bak. A Seoul court found him guilty of embezzling approximately 570 million won ($485,436) in budgetary funds to hold two banned political campaigns between 2011 and 2012 under the Lee administration.

On instructions from Won Sei-hoon, Lee launched projects aimed at inflicting damage on the predecessors of former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-Hyun by revealing their sources of illicit funding.

On August 31, 2020, a court of appeals upheld the seven-year prison sentence given to Won Sei-hoon, and increased the amount of money that had been misappropriated to 15.6 billion won ($13.14 million). The court also found him guilty of receiving about 200 million won in bribes. Along with that, Won was acquitted of 13 charges involving the abuse of power and interfering with people exercising their rights owing to his attempts to put liberal broadcasters in a disadvantageous position.

On October 22, 2020, a court of appeals sentenced Kim Kwang-jin, who served as defense minister from 2010 to 2014, to 28 months in prison on charges that he put in orders for nearly 9,000 online comments in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election that were favorable for the government – and critical of the opposition party.

In February 2021, then leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea Lee Nak-yon said that from 2008-2013 the National Intelligence Service conducted illegal surveillance of 1,000 people, including 299 lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, journalists, civic activists, and television celebrities. The petition also required the intelligence agency to help bring the truth about these allegations to light, and develop measures to prevent these kinds of illegal espionage practices from occurring again.

After that, the current director of the NIS, Park Jie-won, announced that he would report the details of the case to the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee, and called upon parliament to pass a special law to end 60 years of illegal surveillance on civilians by the espionage agency. The intelligence chief pointed out that illegal surveillance continued during Park Geun-hye’s reign, and then the process of gathering inside information stopped under Moon.

On March 11, 2021, the Supreme Court ordered a retrial for Won Sei-hoon’s case, and called for a stricter verdict, given his special legal status and power.  However, the Supreme Court overturned part of a ruling delivered by the court of appeals that upheld his seven-year prison sentence in August, but did acknowledge that he did not abuse his power when he ordered that an eye be kept on then president Roh Moo-hyun and then Seoul mayor Park Won-soon during their foreign travels.

On July 8, 2021, the Supreme Court upheld the rulings made against three former NIS directors convicted of providing illegal funds to the administration of then President Park Geun-hye. Generals Nam Jae-joon, Lee Byung-kee, and Lee Byung-ho were charged with sending employees working at the Blue House 3.5 billion won ($3.1 million) on a monthly basis during their tenure taken from special event funds for the agency: that was also the practice under Won Sei-hoon. For this, Nam was sentenced to one-and-a-half years in prison, Lee Byung-kee was given three years, and Lee Byung-ho was given three-and-a-half years.

In June 2018, the Seoul Central District Court found them guilty of illegally providing funds to the Blue House, but then ruled that the money could not be fully considered to be bribes since no services were provided in exchange. But in November 2019 the high court sent the case back for review, stating that they should be found guilty of inflicting harm on the government treasury, and that some of the money should be treated as a bribe.

President Moon does not visit the intelligence agency frequently, but experts have repeatedly pointed out the fact that Moon Jae-in’s government has increased the budget allocated to the intelligence services and the Ministry of Defense much more than the government under Park Geun-hye. For example, for 2021 the government is asking for 746 billion won (about $700 million), and if that is true, then over the three years Park Geun-hye was in power the intelligence services’ budget grew by only 4.6%, and over the three years of Moon Jae-in’s rule (2018-2021) it will increase by 61%.

On June 4, 2021, Moon Jae-in visited the headquarters of the espionage agency, and on Friday received a briefing on the reform measures. This was Moon’s second visit to the National Intelligence Service since taking office.

Park Jie-won reported to the president how he reorganized the system to focus more on areas such as counterterrorism, cyber security, etc., underscoring in particular that “the agency’s ability to collect and analyze scientific information has been improved through a dedicated training program for ‘white hackers’.” This phrase is worth remembering both in relation to stories about how Pyongyang hackers steal scientific secrets and bogus narratives about Moon’s entourage that the Republic of Korea will soon present an innovative vaccine.

In response to the report, the president stated that the NIS “has come back as an intelligence agency for the state and the people,” and urged it to become an agency oriented toward the future, and remain true to its duty. Moon noted that the intelligence services monitored other countries’ responses to COVID-19, protected South Koreans overseas, and supported vaccine procurement activities while playing a key role in protecting the workforce and technology in high-tech industries such as semiconductors, biomedical sciences, energy storage devices, and 5G networks.

Then Moon attended the opening ceremony for a stone that bears the agency’s new motto – the new inscription was timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary since the intelligence services were established. The motto “silent devotion, only for the protection and glory of the Republic of Korea”, used since the time of President Park Geun-hye, was replaced by the phrase “boundless loyalty and devotion to the country and its people”.

However, not everybody liked the inscription. On June 21, 2021, a number of former members of the South Korean National Intelligence Service held a protest at the building of the intelligence agency. According to them, the new inscription was done in the likeness of the handwriting of the late Professor Shin Young-bok, who in 1968 was sentenced to life in prison on charges of violating national security laws. The protestors thought this fact was irrelevant.

Now let’s talk about the new NIS director, since this man has his own trail of scandals. The author has written more than once about how, as the intelligence chief, Park has either “reinvented the wheel”, or come out declaring unconfirmed sensations. Gyeongnam National University professor Kim Geun-sik noted that “the director of the nation’s espionage agency still behaves like a politician”. But that is not the point right now.

When Park Jie-won was just about to be appointed as the NIS director, conservatives posed the direct question about whether Moon’s protégé had the right to head the espionage agency, given his “close ties to the enemy”.  This is taken to mean the fact that Park played a key role in the historic 2000 summit between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il, and the fact that in 2003 Park was sentenced to three years in prison for participating in the illegal transfer of $500 million to the DPRK directly before the summit. Officially, it was charitable activity on the part of the Hyundai company, conservatives launched the “case of the bought summit”, and Roh Moo-hyun, who needed to get rid of the former president’s old guard, played along with them.

This time, conservatives went even further, and said that half a billion was only the first payment, and in exchange for organizing the meeting Park had agreed to pay North Korea $3 billion over three years.

This is allegedly evidenced by a secret inter-Korean agreement signed by Park as a special envoy on April 8, 2000 in preparation for the summit. Conservatives even produced a copy of the agreement, which Park said had been fabricated and promised to file a lawsuit.   Fortunately, none of the participants in the event remembered about the existence of a document like this, and when asked how the conservatives got ahold of it, deputy Chu Ho-young, who released it, said that “a former high-ranking government official visited his office and provided a document, and asked him to raise this issue”.

On July 20, 2020, President Moon Jae-in declared that it is very inappropriate to accuse his candidate for the post of intelligence chief of colluding with North Korea. And on July 29, 2020, citing the results of an internal investigation involving the Ministry of Unification and the National Intelligence Service, the Blue House said that the government did not have any document that had been signed by Park relating to an alleged secret agreement with North Korea in 2000.

Even though something similar periodically occurs in the Blue House. For example, on December 10, 2020, the Supreme Court ordered a lower court to reconsider its acquittal of those accused of destroying the transcript of the 2007 inter-Korean summit to hide the alleged proposal by the then President of South Korea to shift the western maritime border to a position that favored the DPRK.

Returning to Park Jie-won, the latest story – which is just starting to unfold – involves a swindler named Kim who is currently facing trial with seven people on charges of fraud amounting to 11.6 billion won ($10.2 million). Kim, an ex-convict, started his scam in June 2018 after he was released from prison on a presidential pardon in December 2017. Kim had connections with politicians, lawmakers, prosecutors, police officers, journalists, and other influential figures. Kim allegedly offered Special Prosecutor Park Young-soo, who was investigating a corruption scandal involving former President Park Geun-hye, a Porsche as a rental car. Although Park said he returned the car after two days of driving it, and later allegedly paid 2.5 million won in rent, he resigned on July 7, 2021. Some pointed out that he made the payment only after the police launched a full-fledged investigation into Kim.

Other recipients of various gifts include a prosecutor named Lee from the Seoul Southern District Prosecutor’s Office, and Lee Dong-hoon, a former editor with The Chosun Ilbo newspaper who briefly served as the press secretary for former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl.

When it rains, it pours: On June 29, 2021 Park Jie-won’s son-in-law was tried on drug smuggling charges. The 45-year-old senior executive director of Samsung Electronics Co. was charged with bringing ecstasy and cannabis from the United States in May 2019, and using drugs in a variety of ways in July and August of that same year.

And the author is sure that the scandals surrounding the NIS will not end there – something will certainly come up before the presidential elections.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


Please select digest to download: