Asia Pacific / Politics | ANALYSIS

Seoul report on Kim purge open to doubt

Elite gathering in midmonth could confirm uncle's ouster

by Foster Klug


The claim by South Korea’s spy agency that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un probably sacked the country’s second-most-powerful official — his uncle — is intriguing news. But the first question is, is it true?

Seoul’s National Intelligence Service has a spotty record of tracking what is going on inside what may be the world’s most secretive, unfriendly and difficult-to-navigate country.

Some analysts dismiss the agency’s new claim that Kim has probably fired Jang Song Thaek, a man widely seen as a kingmaker who guided his young nephew as he consolidated power. It appears to be based largely on Jang’s nearly monthlong disappearance from North Korean media, something not unheard of in the leader’s circle, and the agency’s belief that two of his associates have been publicly executed.

The agency is thought to get its information in part by closely monitoring Pyongyang’s media for signs of change; by talking to defectors in Seoul, especially those who claim continuing ties with North Koreans; and by cultivating contacts in the North.

North Korean media have so far been silent, but soon could reveal whether the NIS is right. Pyongyang’s political and military elite may gather Dec. 17 to mark the second anniversary of the death of Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il.

Here is a look at past hits and misses by South Korea’s spy service:

Island attack: Many in Seoul saw an intelligence breakdown in the spy agency’s failure to predict North Korea’s artillery bombardment of a front-line South Korean island in November 2010 that killed two civilians and two marines. At a closed-door parliamentary committee meeting after the attack, lawmakers said then-spy chief Won Sei-hoon told them that his agency had intercepted North Korean communication indicating such an attack two months before it occurred, but dismissed it as routine rhetoric.

Kim Jong Il’s travels: South Korean spies claim success in predicting that Kim Jong Il would travel to China in 2011. Initial media reports, citing the president’s office, said it was Kim Jong Un doing the traveling, but the NIS says that wasn’t its fault. The agency says its spies were aware that the senior Kim was traveling alone and didn’t correct the inaccurate reports because it had to protect the sources of its information.

Kim Jong Il’s health: The intelligence agency rejects allegations that it misjudged the repercussions of Kim Jong Il’s deteriorating health in the years before his 2011 death by telling South Korean officials that the government faced imminent collapse. Instead, the agency says, it advised them that Kim remained in control of his government but that its instability had increased slightly because of his health problems and a botched currency revamp in 2009.

Kim Jong Il’s death: The NIS was widely criticized because of reports that it learned of Kim Jong Il’s 2011 death more than two days after it occurred. South Korean spies responded that they weren’t alone, and that no intelligence agency in the world knew about Kim’s death before the North’s public announcement.