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South Korea's world-class national police force is not geared to catching the North's spies

South Korea's world-class national police force is not geared to catching the North's spies
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When Winston Churchill looked to confront the domestic counterintelligence threat posed by Nazi Germany at the outset of World War II, he realized he had some house cleaning to do in MI5, the United Kingdom’s Security Service, to make it an effective service. He fired the agency’s superannuated chief, Vernon Kell, ultimately replacing him with an Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) officer, David Petrie. With the right leadership, MI5 went on to spectacular success against the Nazi Abwehr, using the famous “double-cross” system of double agents.  

This is a well-known story among intelligence professionals, but it offers up a relevant lesson for today’s South Korean government, which recently stripped its sprawling National Intelligence Service (NIS) of counterintelligence responsibilities. Responsibility for the hunting of North Korean spies inside South Korea now rests with the Korean National Police (KNP). It is a world-class police force, to be sure, but is it the best place for the secretive and highly specialized work of a counterintelligence service? I think not.

The origins of the decision are much less relevant than what to do going forward; suffice it to say that with so many prominent members of the current South Korean ruling Democratic Party having a history of arrest and even torture as student activists at the hands of the NIS’s predecessor organization, the KCIA, not to mention a long and questionable history of involvement in domestic South Korean politics, a realignment of responsibilities was not unanticipated in South Korean political circles. 

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With the decision made, I want to focus on aspects of the MI5 example from this past time, as it is worthy of consideration by South Korean leadership charged with making this change work — at a critical juncture in South Korean history vis-à-vis relations with the North. 

There are a few obvious parallels to the MI5 story. In terms of the stakes, they are as high now for South Korea as they were then for Great Britain — maybe higher if you add to the strategic picture a disadvantageous land border and nuclear weapons as key differentiators from Britain’s position in WWII. The MI5 eventually identified, and penetrated or doubled, almost every Abwehr asset, essentially neutralizing the entire Nazi spy effort (as part of the double cross system).  

But it was the structure and type of leadership that lay at the center of the success — MI5 was neither a police nor foreign intelligence service, but a hyper-discreet hybrid of the two. The more flexible circumstance-driven approach allowed MI5 leadership decision-making to flow like water to where the advantage was greatest for overall British interests. Disincentivize “the lust for the bust” operating principle, which drives what police actually do on a daily basis, and you maximize your chances of getting to a position of strategic advantage: In addition to compromising Nazi sources, the British were able to build up and feed a false narrative back to Nazi leadership, which helped misdirect German military decision-making around key parts of the D-Day plan. 

The North Koreans have been rightly accused of bungling many of their attempts to gather intelligence inside South Korea, but they are well-resourced, motivated and relentless, with a long history I need not reproduce here of attempting everything from attacking the Blue House to midget submarine agent insertions. I know from experience that they are not to be underestimated or trifled with.  

Another point I want to unpack is Churchill’s selection of an SIS professional to jump-start the feckless MI5: Kell needed to go, but who to replace him? Churchill opted for someone with a credible background in intelligence operations to take the helm. Petrie was the man with intelligence chops for that moment in British history. The KNP, under Minister of the Interior and Safety Chin Young, has no such relevant experience. My concern is that the KNP, bereft of close guidance and supervision from NIS counterintelligence professionals, will stumble when a South Korean MI5-like construct, under the KNP but with a degree of independence and some connective tissue back to the NIS, would better suit their needs.  

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At a minimum, such a construct would eliminate that period of time peculiar to bureaucracies where there is an interregnum between old and new constructs marked by gross underperformance. Make no mistake, the South Korean National Police is a first-rate police force, but with the threat real and growing from the North, there is no time for a prolonged exercise in bureaucratic self-learning.

Then there’s the need to keep things secret in a way anathema to police procedure and culture, not to mention its IT infrastructure, which has the same police methodology bias designed into it.  There is always much to be concerned about in the conduct of a counterintelligence investigation: careers, livelihoods and morale of important institutions and ministries have to be weighed against national security interests. Nor can counterintelligence investigations survive the light of premature media attention. In the blood sport of South Korean domestic politics, leaking sensitive information is much like Korea’s own Tae Kwon Do martial art — popular and lethal.  

This new MI5-like structure needs to be sequestered off from the main body of the KNP, its officers specially trained, with its own IT and administrative systems designed to protect against both North Korean penetration and the South Korean body politic. Installing an experienced hand from NIS, suitably divorced from his former agency, would send a message of clear intent to get the counterintelligence mission done right.

John Finbarr Fleming is a 31-year veteran of the CIA who had multiple overseas tours before retiring this year as assistant director of the CIA for Korea. He is now senior director for strategic projects at Owl Cyber Defense Solutions. The opinions expressed here are his own.