Spies are supposed to be shy creatures: Across the world, intelligence services do not want to find themselves in the spotlight, even if such public interest is generated by their successes, not their failures.
From this point of view, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) of the Republic of Korea has been unlucky: In less than a year, it has found itself at the centre of two significant, and very public, scandals. Both seemingly confirm what the South Korean left is never tired of repeating: The NIS is still basically the notorious KCIA, created by the military dictatorships in the 1960s, not so much to find North Korean and foreign espionage, but to control and suppress local opposition.
The first scandal occurred when it was discovered that the personnel of the NIS cyber warfare unit was much involved in the 2012 presidential campaigns. Some of its personnel, acting on orders from above, disseminated online materials in support of the conservative candidate, who eventually won the election.
The second scandal reached its apex this week, when the South Korean president accepted the official apology from the spy agency as well as resignation of the deputy head of the NIS. The NIS expressed his regret about the case of Yu Woo-sung, a man accused of spying for the North Korean intelligence services.
This affair which involves falsified evidence and complicated intrigues, at first glance appear reminiscent of former times, when the NIS' predecessor agency was very much involved in arresting many innocent people who it accused of spying for Pyongyang.
This affair which involves falsified evidence and complicated intrigues, at first glance appear reminiscent of former times, when the NIS' predecessor agency was very much involved in arresting many actually innocent people who it accused of spying for Pyongyang.
However, though things might look similar, the reasons are actually probably different.
Nonetheless, what is clear is that NIS personnel have yet to learn how responsible intelligence and counter-intelligence services should operate in a democratic society.
Yu's arrest in 2013 attracted much attention. Yu was actually a Chinese national and a former permanent resident of North Korea. In 2004, he came to the South as a refugee. Legally speaking, being a Chinese citizen, he was not eligible for the very generous package of benefits that is provided by the South Korean government to the former citizens of rival North Korea. He, therefore, did not mention his Chinese passport and passed for a bona fide North Korean refugee.
Since Yu in one of a tiny group of Chinese nationals who have the right to live in the North (the only group of foreign nationals who that right) and spent all his life in North Korea before coming South, he speaks flawless Korean and is indistinguishable from a North Korean. Yu was quite successful in the South, becoming a minor official in the Seoul government. This is the reason why his arrest attracted so much attention: Very few North Korean refugees have ever become public servants.
However, the case against Yu collapsed in August 2013 when the court ruled that the evidence against him was insufficient. The NIS soon produced additional evidence - papers of the Chinese immigration service that purported to show that Yu made a number of trips to North Korea via China after his defection (he admits that only one such trip was made, to attend his mother's funeral). South Korean intelligence operatives allegedly obtained said papers from their undercover agents in the field.
To further their case against Yu, the NIS did something that very few intelligence services would usually do: They brought one of their agents from the field. This agent, a Chinese national, was supposed to give testimony in court.
And then the minor embarrassment of a not guilty verdict became a major scandal. The documents proved to be fake, and soon the Chinese agent admitted that he himself had forged the papers, acting on orders and pressure from his controllers. The controllers themselves were soon under investigation as well and their positions and surnames were splashed all over the newspapers, thus their cover has been well and truly compromised. In due time, some mid-ranking NIS officers admitted that they did order the preparation of forged documents. There is little doubt that the NIS did employ all legal and illegal means to put Yu in jail.
Framing another innocent man
Predictably, the left-leaning opposition press launched a campaign against the NIS in which it accused the secret police of framing another innocent man. As any progressive intellectual knows only too well: All intelligence services exist only to frame innocent men and women in the greatest number possible. There is little doubt that the NIS' predecessors were involved in such activities in the past, but this time, such accusations do not look very plausible. Yu is not a political activist, but rather, a junior clerk in the Seoul city administration. Further, he was not accused of handing over state secrets to the North (if NIS statements are to be believed, he provided very mundane intelligence to the North).
There is little if any political gain that the NIS would possibly get from the Yu case. It should also be noted that most of the NIS people who found themselves implicated in the case, while admitting their wrongdoings or the wrongdoings of their peers, still insist that Yu was a spy. It appears quite likely that the NIS, for some reasons unknown, developed some serious suspicions about Yu, or perhaps, even came to the definite conclusion that this quiet Chinese was a North Korean spy. As a matter of fact, there have been a number of cases in which North Korean spies have infiltrated South Korea disguised as defectors. On top of that, recruiting a refugee is quite easy for North Korean spymasters; this is because a refugee’s family can often be used as hostages.
What is clear is that the NIS used all means at its disposal to make sure that someone they considered a spy would not get off the hook. Since they could not produce sufficient evidence, they obviously decided to fabricate it.
Thus it is quite possible that agents of the NIS were driven by excessive zeal and a misguided sense of loyalty. This does not, however, justify their actions. They have behaved as if they are fighting a war. They still seemingly operate in a world where a small bastion of freedom is fighting for its life amid the great dark hoard of totalitarian communists who have come to envelop the entire continent of Asia.
This is clearly not how spies in a democratic society like South Korea are supposed to behave.
One can suggest that the NIS should learn from rather unlikely teachers: The US counter-intelligence services of the 1940s. This period is widely known as the era of McCarthyism, however it only recently became known that in the 1940s, the US government successfully intercepted and decoded a number of cables sent by Soviet intelligence centres then operating in the US (the so-called Venona Project).
These intercepted cables implicated a number of high-level US officials, but the existence of the project could not be revealed, so the US authorities prosecuted only a minority of the people they knew were on the payroll of their arch-enemy. Only people against whom a sufficient amount of non-classified evidence could be used ever stood trial. Most were just fired from jobs that gave them access to state secrets and then left alone. Declassified cables as well as recently published KGB papers proved that some of the alleged victims of US internal repression were as alleged: active Soviet informers.
Perhaps from a purely operational point of view, the decisions of the US counter-intelligence bureaucracy diminished their efforts. But, it also showed that even in the dark days of Senator Joseph McCarthy, many in even the most hawkish parts of the US bureaucracy did not forget what democracy is about.
So, in this case, it is quite possible that NIS operatives did not see themselves as cynics framing an innocent man. To determine whether Yu was guilty or not, we should wait until North Korean intelligence declassifies its files, and this might be a long wait indeed. However, in the meantime, we should presume the innocence of Yu Woo-sung. Unless further evidence comes to light, he should be treated as a framed man. Trampling upon the principle of the presumption of innocence of all is dangerous, and we can only hope that in future, the NIS remembers this fact.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.