The once-comfortable relationship between South Korean and American intelligence agencies has broken down as the South attempts to shake off its dependence on US support, according to intelligence analysts here.
Although US military intelligence officers remain on cordial working terms at the Ministry of National Defense, analysts say the Central Intelligence Agency is frustrated in its attempts to obtain information on North Korea - including access to defectors - from the South's National Intelligence Service.
Just this week, North Korea's top defector, Hwang Jang Yop, failed to appear at a press conference here to address recent death threats against him, after having said he would attend "at the risk of his life," said one of the conference organizers. Since he did not call to cancel, the organizer assumed he was forced to stay away. Defectors have had to keep a low-profile in South Korea, partly due to the protectiveness of South Korean officials concerned with offending the North and giving ammunition to US hawks.
Intelligence analysts trace the difficulty to the previous presidency of Kim Dae Jung, who sharply changed the government's outlook by pursuing his Sunshine Policy of reconciliation with North Korea.
"In the 1980s and 1990s, Koreans had some complaints about the US attitude after the launching of [a] US spy satellite," said Hajime Izumi, director of Korean Studies at the University of Shizuoka in Japan. "Now it is the Koreans who are reluctant to share. They don't provide everything. Such a new attitude took place during the Kim Dae Jung period."
While the US has high-tech abilities to monitor North Korea, South Korea has a strength in human intelligence gleaned from defectors. Fast, complete access to defectors is vital, say analysts, in light of how little the CIA knows about the extent of Pyongyang's nuclear programs at the heart of six-nation negotiations.
US officials don't comment on intelligence lapses, but the CIA has admitted for years that it can only estimate that North Korea probably has built one or two nuclear warheads. The estimate has grown more uncertain since early last year, when the North restarted its reactor at Yongbyon. The agency knows far less about the regime's uranium enrichment program.
"In the long history of the American and Korean CIAs," said Lee Ki Tak, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University, "the starting trouble" was the case of Mr. Hwang, who was a North Korean party secretary before defecting seven years ago.
Hwang and a top aide who defected with him arrived in Seoul from Beijing, where they had sought refuge in the South Korean Embassy, several months before Kim Dae Jung's election in December 1997. Although the government was conservative until Kim's inauguration in February 1998, CIA officials had to wait several months before getting to see Hwang, and they never had the steady access they would have liked.
Then, when a North Korean officer in charge of a missile unit and a former senior official at North Korea's Nuclear Research Institute came to South Korea last year, said Mr. Lee, "our government hid them in a rural area."
One exception may have been a report from a North Korean defector three years ago that the regime had been pursuing a centrifuge enrichment program needed to process highly enriched uranium for the core of nuclear warheads.
Even so, the information was far from complete.
"The location of the production plant and related facilities were apparently not identified," said a study issued by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. The word of the defector, whose identity has never been revealed, corroborated reports that US intelligence had already received from Pakistani sources as well as from contacts familiar with North Korean procurement efforts in Japan and Germany.
Now South Korean officials question privately whether they should have gone as far as they did in supporting US intelligence aims.
The word of the defector was one element that led US analysts to conclude in July 2002 that North Korea had a uranium enrichment program entirely separate from the program at the Yongbyon facility that was shut down under the 1994 Agreed Framework. Four months later, armed with this information, James Kelly, US assistant secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, confronted North Korean officials in Pyongyang with the facts, detonating a chain reaction that blew apart the agreement and led to the current standoff.
Behind an appearance of cooperation with the US in negotiations, South Korean officials have repeatedly expressed concern about the danger of the "hard-line" US response. They question whether the uranium program has gone far and warn there's no way, short of war, of uncovering all the sites, a number which are hidden in caves scattered throughout the North.
As a result, information may be harder to come by than ever.
"There was always a lag time with defectors," said Gary Samore, principal editor of the IISS report. "Eventually we got access, but there was some unhappiness when we didn't get to debrief defectors."
Park Young Ho, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute of National Unification, affiliated with the government, also perceived disagreement in analyzing the information. One reason for the difference may be that ready access to defectors gives South Korean analysts a better sense of the validity of what they are told.
"The US and South Korea have differences in interpreting intelligence," said Mr. Park. "While the US has the advantage in gathering scientific intelligence from satellites, South Korea has the advantage in gathering human intelligence. Both countries should share."