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South Korea in furor over intelligence vacuum on Kim Jong-il's death

Getting information out of North Korea is notoriously difficult, but many say South Korea's intelligence service has been embarrassed by playing catch-up on Kim Jong-il's death.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / December 21, 2011

Pyongyang citizens grieve as they visit a portrait of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on display in the plaza of the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Dec. 21.



Seoul, South Korea

Senior South Korean officials face a barrage of criticism over one question: Why didn't they have an inkling of the death of Kim Jong-il before North Korea’s state media announced it Monday, 50 hours after he died?

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After stumbling over questioning from members of the National Assembly, officials were humiliated Wednesday by a report that the Chinese may have known about Mr. Kim’s death within hours after he reportedly collapsed and died on a train.

JoongAng Ilbo, a leading daily here, quotes “an unidentified source in Beijing” as saying China’s ambassador to North Korea informed his government of Kim’s death on the same day.

South Korea’s foreign ministry has said emphatically that China did not get word well in advance, but the sense remains that South Korea’s National Intelligence Service is playing catchup on an event that analysts should have known about first.

A member of South Korea's ruling party, Gu Sang-chan, rebuked the director of the intelligence service, Won Sei-hoon, for what he called “a major major problem in our information-gathering ability regarding North Korea.”

Mr. Won admitted frankly that analysts knew nothing of Kim Jong-il’s death until a wailing North Korean news reader, clad in the traditional black hanbok attire of mourning, announced it at noon Monday.

He did, however, question the circumstances of the death, saying there was no sign the train on which Kim Jong-il was said to have died was still at the station. The basis of that claim was assumed to be video images from satellites, but the broader question remained as to whether anyone in South Korea, or in the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has a real fix on power-maneuvering in Pyongyang.

Satellite images, informants

Aside from scrutinizing the North Korean media, analysts are fixated on satellite images supplemented by reports from informants using cellphones near the Chinese border. Since the Korean War ended in 1953, there has been no report of an informant within the small elite in Pyongyang at the apex of the armed forces and Workers’ Party.

One problem, in the view of some observers, is that the CIA has either not sought or not been able to cultivate “human intelligence” inside North Korea as it has elsewhere. “The US has been relying on State Department intel,” says Louis Dechert, a retired Army officer with years of service in Korea and Vietnam. State Department officials “are neither trained, motivated, nor budgeted to do it,“ Mr. Dechert says.


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