NIS agent denies link to civilian surveillance in apparent suicide note

July 19, 2015
An official at Yongin Dongbu Police Station in Yongin, South Korea, on July 19, 2015, holds up a page of the will left by a National Intellgence Service employee who was found dead the previous day. (Yonhap)

An official at Yongin Dongbu Police Station in Yongin, South Korea, on July 19, 2015, holds up a page of the will left by a National Intellgence Service employee who was found dead the previous day. (Yonhap)

SEOUL/YONGIN, July 19 (Yonhap) — The spy agency employee recently found dead denied in his apparent suicide note that the intelligence body used its controversial hacking program on civilians, police said Sunday.

Police earlier disclosed part of the will left behind by the employee of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), surnamed Lim, who was found dead in a car on a mountain road in Yongin, some 50 kilometers south of Seoul, on Saturday.

His relatives were initially opposed to the contents becoming public, but authorities persuaded them to reveal some of it.

In the note, Lim, who authorities say purchased and ran the hacking program, insisted that the NIS never used the program on civilians or on any South Korean nationals in relation to elections, and said he got carried away.

“I decided the NIS was more important than whatever impact (my action) would cause, and so I deleted information that created misunderstandings about our counter-terrorism and covert operations on North Korea,” Lim wrote. “It was a mistake on my part. But there is nothing to be worried about over any of my actions.”

Lim also apologized to his colleagues and added, “I hope (the leadership) will manage the NIS so that all the employees can carry out their operations without hesitation.”

The will was written on three sheets of legal paper. The contents pertaining to the NIS were written on one page. The other two pages were mostly Lim’s apologies to his family, and his relatives refused to make those parts public, according to police.

Investigators said there was a piece of burnt coal inside Lim’s car, but there were no signs of forced entry or any suspicious marks on his body, making it likely that the 45-year-old took his own life. An autopsy on Lim will be performed Sunday.

The apparent suicide and the note are expected to further stoke the controversy surrounding where and how the NIS used the hacking program it bought from an Italian company in 2012.

The NIS has so far said the program, which uses Remote Control System technology, allows hackers to manipulate and track smartphones and computers by installing spyware.

It said the system can hack 20 mobile phones simultaneously, making it ideal for eavesdropping.

The NIS emphasized that it used the program for the purpose of strengthening cyber warfare capabilities against Pyongyang and only against people living outside the country that have ties with the reclusive, communist country.

Such explanations, however, have been met with skepticism by many in the country, and in particular, the main opposition party, which believes the NIS has also spied on South Korean civilians.

The spy agency countered that while the information about the hacking is classified, it will show the usage records of the controversial hacking program to lawmakers to alleviate concerns that clandestine operations were carried out on locals.

After Lim’s will was disclosed, ruling party lawmakers said the information deleted by the late employee can be recovered in its entirety.

In a press briefing, Saenuri Party’s Lee Chul-woo and Park Min-shik, both members of the National Assembly’s intelligence committee, said the NIS told them that the lost data can be restored using digital forensic techniques.

According to the lawmakers, the NIS said Lim must have feared that information regarding counter-terrorism and operations on North Korea would cause a major stir and must have deleted it while momentarily forgetting that the data could be recovered.

The lawmakers said Lim, because he was deeply involved with the hacking program, appeared to have felt burdened when the program sparked a political controversy.

An NIS official said once the deleted files are revived, they will be shared with the members of the intelligence committee.

“We don’t know the details of the deleted data, but we’re in the process of finding out,” the official told Yonhap News Agency on the condition of anonymity. “When the lawmakers serving on the intelligence committee visit our headquarters, we will disclose the information to them.”

The official noted that the committee members are trying to schedule their visit to the NIS and added, “We hope their visit comes fairly soon.”

A government source said the NIS has informed some members of the committee that the files should be restored in their entirety by the end of July at the latest.

“By law, the NIS won’t be able to disclose such information to the general public,” the source added. “Yet since there is such a major controversy over this matter, no one will believe (the NIS) unless the intelligence committee members find out the details. I understand the NIS will reveal its data at least to the committee.”