[Special reportage- NIS part II] The NIS as the director’s personal fiefdom

Posted on : 2013-07-02 15:13 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Former director bred a culture where loyalty and subservience are rewarded over good work
 then an NIS agent and current ambassador to China
then an NIS agent and current ambassador to China

By Jung Hwan-bong, staff reporter

National Intelligence Service (NIS) agents referred to former director Won Sei-hoon as “the man who came from the sky.” The moniker had been coined to poke fun at the fact that Won was a close confidante of former President Lee Myung-bak and became director through a so-called “parachute” appointment in Feb. 2009, immediately after the Lee administration had been shaken by the candlelight vigils protesting the import of US beef. But the term stuck as a symbol of a man who turned the intelligence agency into his own personal fiefdom. For four years and one month, he effectively pushed NIS employees to meddle in politics in order to suppress the left and wielded his authority over personnel management like a bulldozer, judging people according to how loyal they were to the administration.



■ Won’s politics of fear 

From the beginning of his tenure as director, the confidant of Lee Myung-bak used “politics of fear” to turn the NIS into an organization that was loyal to him. In May 2009, a level-two manager in the office of investigation at the NIS, surnamed Yun, was reprimanded. This was triggered by a single comment that he had made over lunch with an agent from the office of inspection. “In some ways, the government went too far in the Apr. 3 suppression on Jeju Island,” Yun had said. The office of inspection interpreted the remark as “leftist,” and Won put Yun on the list of agents to be reassigned. Yun was no rookie, either, having a great deal of seniority in the office of investigation.

“There wasn’t anyone else who had Yun’s expertise on investigations into spy rings. He was an old hand in the office of investigation, and he was reprimanded for a ridiculous reason,” NIS agents said. “After this, there was a lot of talk at the NIS about how it wasn‘t even safe to eat lunch with the other employees.” Yun was placed on the waiting list for reassignment, and he ultimately left the NIS. In short, a high-ranking NIS official who had investigated numerous spy rings had been driven out of the organization for being too leftist.

Similar things happened again and again. In Sep. 2009, a level-four team leader in the office of investigation, surnamed Kang, was reviewing a report by one of his subordinates when he was troubled by the phrase, “the past ten years of leftist administrations.” He thought that labeling these administrations as “leftist” was going a bit far, considering that they had not taken power illegally. Kang instructed his subordinate to change the phrase to “the past ten years of administrations.” But an agent who had overhead the conversation reported his remarks to the office of inspection, and Kang was demoted, shunted off to a provincial office.

On Sep. 29, 2011, a level-five NIS agent by the name of Kim was let go for making disparaging remarks about Won while having some drinks. Kim made the remarks during a meal with about ten employees at the NIS in Nov. 2010. After having a little to drink, Kim had said, “Won was a stooge of Lee Myung-bak back when Lee was the mayor of Seoul. What could he know about running this place?” This was the time when rumors floating around the NIS about Won being involved in all kinds of irregularities. The NIS took issue with Kim’s remarks, saying he had insulted a superior. A disciplinary board review meeting was held, which decided that Kim would be fired.

But if Won was overzealous in punishing transgressors, he also took particular care of his loyal subordinates. On Dec. 18, 2012 one day before the presidential election Won carried out a personnel reshuffle. This was the first time the NIS had reassigned staff on the day before the presidential election. “There are a lot of political agents who are trying to gain influence with politicians, so I decided to just do the reshuffle myself,” Won said. The majority of people who were promoted on Dec. 18 were members of Won’s inner circle, including an information officer surnamed Lee who had been in charge of Seoul when Won was assistant mayor of Seoul.


■ Demanding submission while changing laws and systems 

What Won desired from NIS employees was not professionalism but subservience, as is effectively illustrated by the clemency review commissions. Won set up the clemency review commissions, promising to rehabilitate some employees who had been subjected to disciplinary action if they could receive the endorsement of their division chief. The implication was that agents who confessed their wrongdoing would be shown mercy. The majority of agents were not pleased by such measures.

The newsletter of the office of inspection, which was circulated among all the NIS agents and carried tales of disciplinary action, started being printed more frequently. While the bulletin had formerly been published quarterly, after Won assumed the role of director, it started coming out once a month. “They were pretty clearly telling us to get on our knees and beg,” said an NIS agent on condition of anonymity.

Won also changed laws to make it easier to take disciplinary action against agents. On May 29, 2009, a mid-level manager in the NIS surnamed Lee was summoned before the disciplinary board and was demoted. A woman that Lee had known had filed a complaint with the NIS that he had tricked her into a sexual relationship by making an empty promise to marry her. The NIS also charged him with leaking classified information because he had told the woman about the location of the Chongryon headquarters in Tokyo when he was studying in Japan, even though that information was already available online.

But Won, believing that demotion was too lenient a punishment, ordered the disciplinary board to convene once more. When the second disciplinary board concluded about ten days later, Lee was dismissed.

On April 13, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that Lee had been unfairly dismissed. The court argued that there were no legal grounds for the NIS to hold a second disciplinary hearing just because it felt the decision of the first disciplinary hearing had been too lenient.

Next, on Sep. 21, the NIS added Clause 41.2 to the enforcement order of the National Intelligence Service Employee Act, creating a legal basis for holding a second disciplinary board. Unable to break the law, the NIS just made a new one.


■ Arbitrary personnel decisions and compulsory loyalty have ruined the intelligence organizationWon’s unilateral demands for loyalty and his preposterous abuse of his personnel management authority have weakened the NIS’s capacity to gather intelligence, which is the chief asset of any intelligence organization. The best example is the collapse of the overseas intelligence network. After Won was appointed director in 2009, he recalled about 50 employees who had been assigned to the overseas division. The reshuffle even included agents who had been overseas for less than three months.

Won filled the empty spots with members of his own coterie. Having experience serving in the overseas division, it turns out, works in one’s favor in getting promoted inside the NIS. “Agents who are assigned overseas invest a lot of time in developing their sources, but these sources disappear when the agent who was in charge of them is rotated out,” an NIS agent said on condition of anonymity. “Won’s ignorance of this and other basic aspects of intelligence work led him to focus only on the promotion of his followers and to lose a lot of our assets.”

The disintegration of the overseas intelligence network has also affected information gathering about North Korea, since a substantial amount of the intelligence that the NIS gathers on North Korea comes in from overseas. The fact that the NIS was caught unaware by developments in the North, including the death of former leader Kim Jong-il and the launch of the long-range missile, during Won’s tenure at the helm appears related to his flagrant abuse of his authority over personnel.

To be sure, even before Lee Myung-bak became president, directors of the NIS demanded blind allegiance to the administration in power and gave promotions to those who are close to themselves or influential political heavyweights and have the right connections, school background, and political affiliation. NIS agents have seen their fortunes reverse each time the party in power changes. “During the Kim Dae-jung administration, a great number of people from Jeolla province were appointed, and they walked around with their noses in the air for quite some time,” said one NIS agent. “But after Lee Myung-bak took power and for some time since then, people from Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province have been dominating the NIS.”

With this “learned effect” exacerbated by Won’s domineering approach to personnel management, many NIS agents are said to be leery about attending hometown reunions or joining alumni organizations. Who you know and how loyal you are to the boss have become more central to survival than how well you do your job.

“There are a lot of NIS agents who are driven by a sense of mission, and there are a plenty of talented and professional agents who hunker down and focus on their work. But I don’t know when they will be rewarded for what they do,” said one NIS agent with a sigh.

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

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