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South Korea: Botched Spying Attempt Embarrasses Citizens

South Korea’s intelligence agency has made headlines in the country for several consecutive days, after its agents allegedly broke into an Indonesian delegation’s hotel room last week in Seoul, in an attempt to steal classified information on Indonesia’s planned arms trade with South Korea.

None of the alleged South Korean spies had bothered disguising themselves as hotel staff. Image by Flickr user  By Digiart2001 | jason.kuffer (CC BY-SA 2.0).

None of the alleged South Korean spies had bothered disguising themselves as hotel staff. Image by Flickr user By Digiart2001 | jason.kuffer (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Korean media and net users lambasted it as both a botched spying job and an ethically regrettable act. The intelligence agency has neither denied nor admitted the allegation.

Yesterday afternoon an Indonesian delegate told the press that the South Korean agent has simply mistakenly entered the wrong room, which happened to be that of the envoy – an excuse people highly doubt.

Caught Red-Handed

Local media reported that two men and one woman broke into the suite room at the Lotte Hotel on February 16, 2011 and fled after a delegation member saw them copying computer files onto a USB memory stick. South Korea’s Chosun newspaper reported an exclusive story strongly suggesting that the three intruders were members of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), South Korea’s top intelligence agency.

The 50-member delegation of Indonesian President Yudhoyono stayed for three days in Korea from February 15-17, 2011, to discuss on expanding bilateral economic and military cooperation between South Korea and Indonesia.

The three spies, who had not even disguised themselves as hotel staff, were caught red-handed handling two laptops in the room. When an Indonesian delegate walked in and found them, one agent handed him a laptop right away, while the other agents walked out of the room carrying another laptop to the hallway, only to then hand it back to the delegate.

Rookie Mistakes

Local reports, quoting Yonhap news agency's analysis [ko], lashed out at the agency for making too many rookie mistakes during the operation. The Yonhap report called the agency's work as “an act hard to believe that it was carried by professionals”, and pointed out that the trio wandered around hotel rooms together in a group, drawing attention to themselves. Furthermore, no one from the group kept watch at the door.

When the news spread on the Korean twittersphere, countless criticisms flowed in. Some tweets mocked the agency's failure as “worse than a knock-off CSI series”.

South Korean Twitter user @serapim1211 tweeted:

부끄러워서 살수가 없습니다! RT @tak0518: 국정원 방 잘못 찾아갔단 해명보단, 인니사절단 서프라이즈파티 해주려 했다는게 더 그럴듯했을 뻔 했다[...]

It is too embarrassing to live with! Retweeting @tako518′s tweet: The NIS should have come up with a better excuse than ‘we have entered the wrong room'. I am suggesting ‘we went there to throw Indonesian delegates a surprise party'. That sounds much convincing.

@Sangawon tweeted:

아무리 정보화 시대라지만 국정원 직원의 인도네시아 대통령특사단 숙소에 들어가 노트북 손댓다가 틀통사건 정말 우리나라의 신뢰도를 땅에 떨구는 행위라고 볼수밖에 없네요~! 아무리 국익이라도 그건 도둑질,,,

I know that we are living in the information age. But NIS agents breaking into the Indonesian presidential delegate's room, touching their laptops and being caught, these acts undermine our national credibility. Even if the spying work was done for national benefits, it is still a theft.

Do In-hyo, on Daum Agora, South Korea's most visited public forum, reasoned [ko] why the excuse is unconvincing and emphasized the seriousness of the issue:

국정원은 조선일보의 보도에 국정원 직원이 특사단이 묵고있는 바로 윗층에 숙소가 있어 직원들이 숙소를 잘못 알고 인도네시아 특사단의 방으로 들어 갔다고 했다는데. 여러명이 동시에 방호수를 잘못 볼수도 있단 말인가[...]세명이나 되는 직원들이 층수도 모르고 방호수도 모르고 들어간 방이 공교롭게도 특사단의 숙소였다?? 국민을 전부 바보로 알고 있는지 국정원 해명의 수준이 정말 가관이지 않은가[...]국정원이 특사단의 노트북에서 몰래 얻으려한 정보는. 우리가 인도네시아와 수출협의 중인 훈련기나 무기등에 대한 인도네시아 측의 가격이 궁금했을 것이다.[...]우리의 물건에 관심이 있어 구매 협의를 하기위해 고맙게도 손님이 방문을 했는데, 미련하게도 손님의 숙소에 무단 침입하여 손님이 사고자 하는 가격을 몰래 훔쳐 보려다 들킨 꼴이니. 앞으로 어떤 손님들이 우리를 신뢰하고 물건을 구입하려 들것인가 말이다.

The NIS, in response to the Chosun report, made up an excuse that they confused the Indonesian delegate's room with their own hotel room which was one floor up. Is it possible several people got confused at the same time and did not recognize that they were standing at the wrong room? [...] and what a coincidence that the room three agents entered without even checking the room number happens to be the envoy's room! These agents must be treating Korean citizens as someone stupid enough to buy this lame excuse. [...] The NIS must be curious about at which price Indonesians plan to purchase (Korean) weaponry and military equipments. [...] Customers have thankfully visited us, with showing interest in our products and to negotiate on the purchase. But idiotically, the agents have broke into the customer's place and took a peek at the price (list) customers are willing to pay, and worse, they were caught. Who will be able to trust us again and want to buy from us in the future?

The incident brokered a rare truce between South Korea's two main political parties, who are usually fierce opponents. The ruling Grand National party condemned it as a shameful incident: a member commented, “when they were caught, they should have at least have jumped out of the window”. The opposition Democratic party commented, “the prestigious NIS has stooped to plain burglary”, and called for prompt clarification of the incident.

While many focused on the agents’ incompetence, some warned the act itself was reprehensible. Choi Sang-won (@sangawon), who works in the construction industry, tweeted:

인도네시아 사건은 국정원을 떠나 우리나라에서 벌어졌다는 것 자체에도 사과해야할 것이다. 왜냐하면 대통령 특사로 왔으니…그만한 경호를 해줘야하는것 아닌지? [...]인도네시아가 얼마나 크고 잠재력이 무궁무진한 나라인데.

We have to apologize, not only for the fact that it was carried by NIS, but it happened in our country. Since they have came as presidential envoys, they deserve good protection [...] (We need to remember that) Indonesia is a big country with huge potentials.

Blogger kkh6934 expressed concerns [ko] over the government's obsession with economic growth and people's tendency to ignore the moral issues.

경제력만 집중하지 말고 국가란 큰 틀에서 도덕성이 있어야 한다. 한 국가의 문화의 힘의 근원은 경제력이 아니라 도덕성이다.

Our nation needs to (restore) morality, rather than exclusively focusing on our economy. True national power and culture stem from morality, rather than economic power.

Twitter user @datjin sent a rare note of condolence to the agents, saying they must have been severely bruised [emotionally or even physically] after they failed.

Spying on foreign delegates and scavenging classified information during their visits to countries are often treated as an ‘open secret’ in diplomatic underworld, as the Wikileaks cable dumps revealed. Still, this customary act comes at a price: Indonesia has officially asked for verification of reports on the Korean agents’ intrusion.

Local media such as Asia Today speculated [ko] that it may adversely affect collaborative economic projects planned between the two countries for the future.

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