South Korea: massive reshuffling in spy agency NIS

    The National Intelligence Service (NIS) recently ordered 27 heads of departments, all level-1 public servants, to move to its internal education arm — the Graduate School for National Intelligence — without particular job assignments.

    Whenever the administration is changed, the NIS goes through a massive reshuffling and reorganization. Insiders liken the situation to what happened during the Korean War, when the North Korean military was in power at night and the South Korean troops were in charge during the day.

    During the liberal Moon Jae-in administration, domestic intelligence departments were shut completely. But a fluctuating North Korea policy depending on the administration is a problem. Many agree that the NIS lost its ability to collect intelligence on North Korea during the five-year Moon presidency.

    Last month, I sat down in a small “officetel” apartment with a former NIS worker who had long handled North Korea operations. The meeting was stealthily arranged as if it were a contact between spies. A businessman arranged the meeting.

    The former NIS agent, who wished to be identified only as “Mr. A,” said the top spy agency’s North Korea operations were paralyzed after Moon took office and Suh Hoon was named new chief of the NIS in May 2017. According to Mr. A, about 30 level-2 and level-3 workers and another 30 level-4 workers were sent to the in-house education institute in Pangyo, Gyeonggi, in September 2017.

    Those who had successful careers during the 10 years of conservative presidents were forced to undergo a one-year education. NIS workers sarcastically called the program the “Samcheong reeducation camp” named after the infamous concentration camp operated under the rule of general-turned-president Chun Doo Hwan.

    Former president Moon Jae-in receives a framed bronze plaque inscribed with the revised National Intelligence Service Act from NIS director Park Ji-won in 2021. Behind them is the top spy agency’s motto “Limitless loyalty and dedication to the country and people.” The Yoon Suk-yeol administration changed it to “While working in the dark, we seek the bright side,” which had been used for decades. 


    Half of them called themselves “political prisoners,” while others were dubbed “petty criminals.” Political prisoners refers to those who worked in cyber operation or did domestic intelligence collection and analysis. Their vacancies were filled by pro-Moon agents.

    There is a minimum time requirement for a promotion in the spy agency. It takes at least five years for a level-4 agent to be promoted to level-3, and it takes at least three years for a level-3 agent to get promoted to level-2 and another two years to level 1.

    But the NIS abruptly changed the system and lowered the five-year requirement to three years for a promotion from level-4 to level-3, and scrapped any time requirements for agents above level-3. It was a move to promote Moon loyalists who had not met the requirements.

    Accelerated promotions were justified as being necessary to achieve “generational change.” According to Mr. A — the former agent — the NIS now has an unusually large number of senior officers who were promoted fast. It now has 53 level-2 or-above workers who got promoted more than two levels over the past five years due to the change.

    NIS insiders say that a Mr. Noh — a former chief of staff to the NIS director — and a Mr. So — a former head of the human resources department — are responsible for the abuse of power inside the spy agency.

    When the Moon administration started in May 2017, Mr. Noh was a level-3 official, but promoted to a level-1 post within a year. He was then appointed as head of the North Korea operations bureau. After Park Jie-won became the director of the NIS in July 2020, he became Park’s chief of staff. He is a hometown friend of Im Jong-seok, the former Moon chief of staff.

    “While Noh was heading the North Korea operations bureau for two years, he shut key overseas outposts and forcibly aborted ongoing operations,” a source well-informed about the NIS said. “Due to his actions, NIS North Korea operations capabilities regressed by more than a decade.”

    Mr. So, the former human resources management head, also achieved extraordinary promotions. “When he was a rookie, he worked with Suh Hoon, a former NIS head, when Suh was a level-4 agent,” said an NIS source. “The personal connection must have played a role.”

    Mr. So was reportedly responsible for the demotion of 60 workers who were successful during conservative administrations and the assigning of them to insignificant jobs out of Seoul. Through him, Mr. Noh, the former chief of staff to the NIS director, reportedly appointed associates he had worked with at the auditor’s office to key departments handling North Korea and overseas operations.

    The North Korea operations department initially had one or two workers from the auditor’s office, but due to Mr. Noh’s push, it ended up having 20. That means North Korea operations cannot be conducted properly.

    After the liberal Kim Dae-jung administration fired 400 NIS workers in 1998, they fought the decision in the court. After 10 years, they won the case. Learning a lesson from the past, the Moon administration did not fire agents critical of it. Instead, the liberal administration demoted them and isolated them inside the organization.

    The following is an interview with Mr. A about how the NIS has lost its North Korea operations capability.

    Q. What was the biggest problem?

    A. At the end of the first year of Moon’s presidency, an internal CIA report said that there was no likelihood that North Korea would give up nuclear programs. Because South Korea and the United States did not exchange intelligence at the time, we learned about it unofficially. The NIS North Korea bureau continued to collect information on the nuclear programs. We collected information on what the North was doing in Chagang Province and in other places. But we were prohibited from writing reports on North Korea’s nuclear programs. We were told not to make a report based on any information that we cannot vouch for. That is nonsense. As information is raw, analysts produce a report when they think the information is credible. Then it goes through the NIS head to be reported to the president.

    Were any workers forced to resign?

    One of my coworkers was sent to an internal education center and faced an NIS audit and three prosecution investigations. He was then forced to step down. It was because he had “sugarcoated” the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration’s four river restoration project in a report. The report not only featured the good effects, but also the current situation, problems and plans for improvements.

    Is it fair to criminally prosecute a level-4 worker for this? When there is a political problem, the head of the department should be held accountable. It is cruel to punish the career public servants. That is unprecedented.

    And there was a worker who was shocked to see that a prosecutor was using an original print of an NIS internal report during an interrogation. The office of the auditor and the fact-finding taskforce team in the NIS had combed through the agency’s main server and handed over the data to the prosecution. A prosecutor asked the NIS worker if it was really O.K. for them to see such reports. Similar incidents happened multiple times.

    Mr. A said the North Korea operations became dysfunctional over the five-year period.

    “It was an unimaginable situation. Some even said the Moon administration officials must be punished for aiding the enemy,” he said.

    North Korea operations are difficult and hard. It takes a lot of manpower, time and money for agents to approach North Koreans living overseas and win them over. When the operations are stopped, the network is destroyed.

    When Lee Byung-kee was the NIS director under the conservative Park Geun-hye administration, he appointed an agent, who was running a “black operation” in Hong Kong, as his chief of staff. He was a level-3 agent, but after serving as Lee’s chief of staff, he was later promoted to a consul in London.

    It could be good for his career, but the Hong Kong operation, which cost more than $100,000 already, was completely paralyzed. His successors must have lamented the situation.

    A former NIS worker who handled North Korea operations during the Kim Dae-jung administration said that the spy agency has become an empty shell because its power was noticeably weakened under the justification of political neutrality whenever an administration is changed.

    “Because key posts are filled with the leader’s close associates — often based on regional ties — national resources invested and grown for decades were wasted, and the NIS could not function properly,” he said. “The current hierarchy system of NIS workers should be scrapped to stop political appointments once and for all. Creating an outside oversight body can be a resolution.”

    The JoongAng Ilbo made multiple attempts to contact Mr. Noh — the former chief of staff to the NIS director — to hear his position on agent A’s accounts, but the newspaper was unable to reach him.

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    Evarist Chahali

    Evarist Chahali

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