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[Opinion] Korea’s Traveling Intelligence Agency Heads

Posted December. 14, 2005 06:15,   


“Past the river crossing the wheat field… Like the moon through clouds, passes a traveler… Wine ripening in every village under the burning sky of sunset.” With these words, poet Park Mok-wol described a “traveler” as a beautiful wanderer. Lee Eo-ryong, a literature critic, said, “A traveler has the image of not stopping, not owning, and being open to all directions.”

However, when the traveler leaves the world of poetry, the word sometimes evokes negative connotations. When Dosan Ahn Chang-ho said in his speech during Japanese colonial rule: “Are you an owner or a traveler?,” the word “traveler” was not used flatteringly. “Korean people are the owners of Korea. A house that the owner does not keep falls down and collapses… If we consider ourselves tenants or travelers, we will wait until the owner fixes the house,” he said.

Some say that the reason that a traveler’s image is more negative than positive in Korea is that Koreans have lived a settled, agriculture life.

Lim Dong-won, a former National Intelligence Service (NIS) chief, said in the first illegal wiretapping trial at the Seoul Central Court, “For professional intelligence agents who have worked for 20 to 30 years, a NIS chief is like a traveler.” The head of a country’s top intelligence agency is called “spy chief” in other countries, but here, he is called a traveler who just wanders and leaves.

In this sense, it is pitiful that the public has assigned a traveler to play such a crucial role in national security, and that the budget of a service with an unclear destination has been paid for with tax money. The inside story of the North Korea project, in which the “traveler NIS chief” was deeply involved, appears doubtful as well.

The director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is given a 10-year tenure. Appointed under ex-President Bill Clinton, former CIA Director George Tenet fared well in the George W. Bush administration before stepping down in June last year. Korea is a rare country whose national intelligence agency head changes so frequently. The country’s intelligence chief changes whenever its government changes. Moreover, it often changes several times under the same administration.

Traveling national intelligence agency heads in former administrations often abused the agency as a tool of monitoring and suppressing those who were critical of the administration. Unlike the traveler in the poem of Park Mok-wol, who went to a wine-ripening village when the sun set, Korea’s intelligence agency travelers go to jail when the sun of power sets.

Hwang Ho-taek, Editorial Writer, hthwang@donga.com