Punish the thieves
The whole country, it would appear, is now convinced that the mysterious intruders who broke into the Seoul hotel room of a visiting Indonesian official last week were from the South Korean National Intelligence Service.
Two men and a woman were downloading files from a laptop when the official surprised them. They fled, with the laptop, which they apparently returned after a scuffle with a hotel employee. Then they vanished.
Newspaper reports, quoting unnamed, but believable ― because that’s how it works here ― sources, said their mission impossible was to find out the negotiation strategy of the Indonesian delegation, which among other things was deciding whether to buy a Korean-made tank.
What happens to thieves when they’re stealing in the national interest?
Cho Hyun-oh, National Police Agency commissioner, has answered that one. ``There would be no actual benefit from punishing them, would there?” he said.
Actually, what he really meant to say was that government agents legally have to break the law to keep it. Just as the law permits the police to make otherwise illegal U-turns across double yellow lines when they are on-duty, so government spies are legally allowed to steal, defraud, and even kill people in the line of duty.
Thus, if the thieves were government agents, this incident is ``diplomatic,” and a matter of government credibility, whereas, if they weren’t, it’s criminal.
There is a fine line here. Consider: There is no absolute moral need to obey double yellow lines. God did not create road markings. Government authorities did… for the greater good of keeping traffic flowing safely. The alternative is accidents and chaos, flared tempers and honking of horns.
Similarly, society allows its soldiers and security agents to do things which are illegal for ordinary citizens. You and I cannot wiretap someone, but the man with the earpiece can, after the proper paperwork, because he’s defending the country.
This difference highlights a fact about democracies that people accustomed to dictatorships find it extremely difficult to understand. The policeman appears to have greater power than the ordinary citizen but cannot use that power to obtain or keep them. He is in fact dependent on the freely given consent of the citizenry.
With intelligence agencies, things go one step further. In contrast to the police and the military, they primarily act in the dark, keeping their activities hidden even from the lawmakers and officials responsible for approving their budgets, let alone from we taxpayers who pay for it.
That secrecy is necessary. In exchange, though, we expect our trust to be met with responsibility. The intelligence agencies are there to focus on threats to the national interest, not the interest of certain politicians or business people.
That’s how it used to be. In the 1990s the forerunner of the NIS proposed to North Korean officials to create a border incident before a presidential election to boost the chances of the incumbent conservative party. I know of a founding publisher of a newspaper who ran the applications from journalists by the intelligence authorities to make sure he wasn’t hiring labor activists or leftists.
But that was then. Now things are supposed to be different.
The notion of national security may be expanded to the economy, to food safety, to foot-and-mouth disease and a range of threats. But when a security agency steals the laptop of a friendly government which is undertaking a procurement bid ― presumably so that our side can make sure its bid is better than the other bidders’ ― how exactly are we defending national security?
What does it say of this society that the government in power would commission covert lawbreaking to improve its negotiating position in a commercial deal, while cynically jailing anyone else who would do that same thing?
I wonder now if this is how Korea won the $20 billion nuclear deal with the United Arab Emirates. What other successes that we put down to quality products, hard work, and good strategy, were actually secured by official gangsterism?
Call me naive, because it probably happens all the time, but this is not how people should behave. It makes Korea look shabby, not because the thievery was bungled, but because it happened.
Michael Breen is an author, former foreign correspondent and the chairman of Insight Communications, a public relations consulting company. He can be reached at email@example.com.