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Hands off the summit

Veteran agents meeting North Korean officials in hotels is out of the past.
June 24,2017
“I never imagined I would have to do this kind of assignment,” said the spy. His orders: to guard Ryu Mi-young, who had led the North Korean group for an inter-Korean family reunion in Seoul in August 2000. Ryu was the wife of Choe Deok-sin, a South Korean diplomat and former foreign minister who defected to the North while living in the United States in April 1986. The defection of a military commander-turned-diplomat and his wife amazed South Koreans.

Ryu’s brief return to meet the children the couple left behind raised a stir. But South Korean President Kim Dae-jung — still elated by the first-ever inter-Korean summit a few months earlier — provided as warm a reception as possible. Ryu was given a private limousine, a room in a luxury hotel and a private moment with her children away from the press.

Agents of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) were at her side the whole time. Ryu’s past and any effect on the morale of the South Korean intelligence officers were not considered a problem by an administration euphoric over the historic summit meeting on June 15, 2000.

Since President Moon Jae-in took office with promises of more engagement with Pyongyang, there has been talk of another summit between the two Koreas. Moon chose Suh Hoon, who helped organize the summits for presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, as head of the intelligence agency. Moon has publicly said he would go to Pyongyang if conditions are right.

But haste makes waste. Reasonable procedures are essential. The secret transmission of an astronomical amount of dollars in return for the first inter-Korean summit under the Kim Dae-jung administration is a lasting bittersweet lesson. As a result, Pyongyang became more interested in financial gains from the inter-Korean relationship than being genuine in improving ties. A special counsel probe in the Roh administration concluded that of the $450 million Hyundai Group paid for various economic projects during the summit, $100 million had been pledged by the government and Hyundai had paid on its behalf.

An inter-Korean summit is too politically alluring to pass up. Roh, who ordered a special investigation into clandestine rewards to the North by his predecessor, hastily organized his own inter-Korean summit just two months ahead of a presidential election. He pledged various infrastructure ventures including building a freeway from Pyongyang to Kaesong. The Oct. 4 joint declaration between Roh and Kim Jong-il ended up in the trash due to the heavy toll on South Korean taxpayers. There was a joke that the difference was that the payment was made in advance in the case of Kim Dae-jung’s summit, and pledged for later in Roh’s.

In order not to repeat the same folly, the spy agency, first of all, should stay out of the affair. The two previous meetings were led by the chief of the spy agency and his team. Suh Hoon was a key player and was made head of the agency thanks to that experience. Suh prides himself as an expert in organizing inter-Korean summits.

But the NIS must stop playing such a shadowy role. Veteran agents meeting North Korean officials secretly in hotels in Singapore and Shanghai are out of the past. The spy agency no longer should act as a black marketeer and cheap currency exchanger for North Koreans. A deputy director in charge of North Korean affairs shockingly confessed to a special prosecution probe that the agency was “aware” of the risk of the money falling into the hands of defense officials for their weapons program — weapons aimed at South Korea.

While launching an internal reform committee, new NIS chief Suh said he is disheartened by the thought of his staff having had to migrate from one internet cafe to another for anonymous postings in favor of the ruling party candidate Park Geun-hye during the campaign. He also pledged to never repeat the disgrace of the agency leaking a confidential transcript of the inter-Korean summit between Roh and Kim Jong-il.

But those misdemeanors are not the only illicit functions the intelligence office must bring to a close. South Korean intelligence agents must never have to go through the shame of having had to assist a spy of an enemy state. They also must not see their chief go to prison for illegal financial transactions with the North. Such past wrongdoings can only be corrected by introspection, contrition and the true desire for reform.

The NIS should not think that an inter-Korean summit is not possible without its leadership. The Ministry of Unification is better fit to arrange it because it is the formal channel with North Korea when it comes to exchanges of all kinds. The intelligence agency can go back to its original function of espionage and collecting of intelligence on North Korea. That is the only way to restore public confidence and its reputation as a legitimate institution working for the people of South Korea — not the leaders of South Korea or North Korea.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 23, Page 32

*The author is head of the JoongAng Ilbo Unification Research Institute and a unification specialist for the JoongAng Ilbo.

Lee Young-jong