By Jinho Park
An intense political debate is currently taking place in South Korea on reforming the National Intelligence Service (NIS). The current controversy over intelligence reform is somewhat unique in that it is not caused by an intelligence failure, but rather by its alleged interference with the 2012 presidential election. Further adding to the debate is the NIS’ release of its own transcript of the 2007 inter-Korean Summit.
When recalling the history of U.S. intelligence reform efforts since 1947, such efforts were launched in the aftermath of perceived intelligence failures. For instance, the earliest intelligence study by the U.S. government took place after an intelligence warning failure at the outbreak of the Korean War. The most significant study was the 9/11 Commission’s Report in 2004. The recent political origins over intelligence reform in Seoul are rooted in political leader’s inappropriate understanding of the politicization of intelligence. If so, how should we fix this problem?
An act of making intelligence political is required to produce policy-relevant intelligence. Intelligence is an essential resource for making foreign policy and further, understanding international politics. Without intelligence, policymakers would face a strategic difficulty in successfully achieving a policy goal. There is no standard rule, principle, procedure, and regulation in making a policy. In most cases, a policy decision is made under which political and perceptual prejudice prevails. Intelligence is provided to influence some policy, and policy needs some intelligence for support. For these reasons, it is enormously difficult to define an appropriate relationship between policymaking and intelligence gathering. Simply, if the relationship is close, intelligence is vulnerable to becoming a victim of a political conflict while making a policy. On the other hand, if the relationship is distant, intelligence would be irrelevant to or inconsistent with a government policy. After all, an act of making intelligence political is inevitable.
The politicization of intelligence could be understood differently by political leaders as they have a different cognitive value of intelligence. In general, it is said that intelligence is politicized when intelligence is forged by policy predisposition. In other words, this case is an act of “cherry-picking” or trawling intelligence to achieve a specific policy. In most cases critical to national security, policymakers are tempted to be involved in analyzing and producing intelligence. They are well aware of dangers they might cause through such inappropriate activities, but it is enormously difficult for them to overcome these temptations as their decision is more critical to national security. Such misguided politicization of intelligence prevails in politics in Korea. If so, does a misguided politicization of intelligence cause a failure of policy? Yes, it is part of elements constituting a failure of policy, but other elements such as groupthink, idiosyncratic characters of policymakers, and side effects of the democratic political system might be more powerful and relevant to the failure of policy.
An act of politicizing intelligence is not an issue, but an inappropriate politicization of intelligence is an issue to resolve. A misguided politicization of intelligence is more likely when 1) a gap exists between expectations of intelligence producers and consumers, 2) the low level of national policy consensus between policymakers and the public increases, 3) a political confrontation among political groups in making a policy is heightened, 4) competition among intelligence agencies is underdeveloped, 5) the publicity of governmental policy is not transparent, or 6) the public is inattentive to a process of policymaking. These conditions demonstrate that there would be limited success in preventing a misguided politicization of intelligence by reforming an intelligence agency only. We have to examine and improve our decision-making system to be commensurate with intelligence reform.
Without balanced efforts for improving both decision-making and intelligence production, the current intelligence reform of the NIS would not be successful and at most settle the political debates over inappropriate nature of the intelligence agency’s involvement in domestic political affairs. The worst scenario would be reforming the NIS through merely a cut and paste in reorganization of the structure of the NIS.
The writer is a legislative assistant to Rep. Jinha Hwang of the ruling Saenuri Party and a non-resident fellow of Korea Defense & Security Forum (KODEF) in Seoul. The views represented here are the authors alone.
Photo from jonasginter’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.