Why Yoon isn’t going to declassify intel related to S. Korean shot by N. Korea in 2020

Posted on : 2022-06-29 17:31 KST Modified on : 2022-06-29 17:31 KST
Figures in the ruling party are pushing for the disclosure of materials in the presidential archive, but to do so would present major burdens for Yoon
The head of the Incheon Coast Guard’s intelligence and investigation bureau gives a midway briefing on Sept. 29, 2020, on the case of a South Korean civil servant’s death by North Korean fire in the waters off of Korea’s western coast. (Yonhap News)
The head of the Incheon Coast Guard’s intelligence and investigation bureau gives a midway briefing on Sept. 29, 2020, on the case of a South Korean civil servant’s death by North Korean fire in the waters off of Korea’s western coast. (Yonhap News)

The political controversy over the 2020 death of a South Korean government employee who was shot by North Korean soldiers in the waters off of Korea’s western coast was first ignited when it was determined that victim Lee Dae-jun was attempting to defect to the North.

This prompted a fierce outcry from Lee’s family members. Then-presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol began focusing on the issue during his campaign, and when his administration took office, the Korea Coast Guard reversed the conclusion of its investigation.

When the incident took place in September 2020, the administration of then-President Moon Jae-in concluded that Lee was attempting to defect, citing “special intelligence” intercepted from North Korean military radio communications.

The People Power Party, which had previously been calling for the release of that intelligence, is now focusing on the disclosure of materials in the presidential archive that would allow for confirmation of the Blue House’s response at the time. Opening those archives requires the consent of at least two-thirds of National Assembly members on the register.

While Yoon is entitled to release special intelligence without a National Assembly decision, he has shown reluctance to do so. In remarks delivered on his way to work on June 21, he said the issue was “not a simple matter” and that it was “difficult to accept the argument for disclosure.” To do so would present major burdens for Yoon in terms of weakening security and incurring objections from the US.

The disclosure of the special intelligence would lead to military security issues, as it would expose the South Korean military’s methods and capabilities for intercepting North Korean communications. The North Korea intelligence interception unit acquires around 1,300 hours of radio communications each day from its detection of many different forms of radio transmission throughout the North.

To guard against enemy eavesdropping, militaries around the world change their frequencies often, while communicating in agreed-upon codes. The interception unit uses knowledge based on decades of experience to decode the language and codes of the North Korean military’s communications.

Once it is revealed that particular communications were intercepted, the North Korean military is very likely to change both its frequencies and its encryption system. It would reportedly take the interception unit around six months to figure the new ones out.

With the current threat of North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles, such a vacuum of intelligence on the North would be too much for the Yoon administration to cope with.

Also, the unit’s intercepted data can only be used to gauge the situation accurately when it is combined with video intelligence.

Even if unit members detected unusual features in military communications intercepted near the North Korean waters where Lee was found dead on the afternoon of Sept. 22, 2020, they would not have been able to ascertain the situation at first. The first clues toward their analysis would come with the addition of US satellite images and reconnaissance photographs showing the presence of a North Korean warship in the area.

Intelligence acquired by the US military would also contribute to assembling the fragmented North Korean intelligence into something credible. South Korea’s 777th Intelligence Command, which is in charge of intercepting North Korean communications, was established by the US military; even today, South Korea and the US work together to share intelligence. Because of that, South Korea would have difficulty disclosing any of its special intelligence without US permission.

Indeed, South Korea has run into serious conflicts with the US by disclosing special intelligence in the past.

In January 2009, the US notified South Korea of intelligence suggesting a North Korean long-range missile launch was imminent. The following February, South Korean officials unofficially leaked information to the press about the size of the North Korean missile and anticipated launch site based on what the US had shared.

The report prompted the US government to protest Seoul — and, for some time, to drastically decrease the amount of satellite images and intercepted intelligence that it provided to the South.

The US viewed the South’s information disclosure as a severe infringement of its “intelligence property rights.”

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories