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Intelligence agency’s safe houses

Posted February. 23, 2011 10:23,   


The National Intelligence Service is known to have an office at Seoul’s Lotte Hotel, where an Indonesian presidential delegation recently stayed. The office was right above the 19th floor where the delegation was staying. This explains why young agents could easily access the floor early Monday morning, when they were allegedly caught stealing confidential information.

Intelligence collection can be done by breaking into a place and stealing data, but is more commonly accomplished through social gatherings. World powers meet at major hotels and this is why intelligence agencies the world over eye major hotels. Spies use hotel rooms as “safe houses.” Intelligence agencies cannot call in important members to their offices, so they frequently call them to these safe houses to gather information.

Safe houses are not always at hotels but also at shabby restaurants or regular homes. In 1998, a South Korean spy team called in a North Korean from Shenyang, China, to a regular home to demand information. The North Korean, however, lacked the data the agents needed. Amid slack surveillance, the North Korean escaped from the house and went to a newspaper. The National Intelligence Service could breathe easier only after the daily informed it of the news. This incident had been the most embarrassing incident for South Korea’s espionage organization until Monday`s fiasco.

Safe houses are a poor choice to carry out espionage activities because excess security can attract attention. Because safe houses are established at exposed places, security can grow lax. If intelligence agents were behind this incident, they might have gotten negligent due to the relaxed atmosphere. Since hotel staff do everything they ask, a sense of laxity probably brought on the ensuing disgrace of the spy agency. Safe houses are so named because they are equipped with strong security, not because they are places where agents can relax. Safe houses can easily become “unsafe” houses if intelligence agents grow lax.

Editorial Writer Lee Jeong-hoon (hoon@donga.com)