SEOUL–For South Korea, the greatest security concern has always existed close to home: North Korea, one of the world’s most militarized nations, has been locked in a Cold War standoff with its southern rival since the division of the Korean Peninsula in 1945. But now, a series of intelligence reports and recent arrests is stoking concerns over the threat of Islamic terrorism in a country with little history of such violence, while exposing partisan divisions over the proper role of the national spy agency.
On Wednesday, South Korea’s answer to the CIA, the National Intelligence Service, told parliamentarians that seven migrant workers had joined ISIS after leaving the country. At the same briefing, relayed to media by the conservative Saenuri Party’s Lee Cheol-woo, the NIS announced that 51 foreigners had been deported since 2010 over ties to militant groups including ISIS.
The NIS made the determination by liaising with intelligence authorities in the migrants’ home countries, Lee said. The statements, which could not be independently verified, did not refer to the nationalities of the alleged ISIS recruits, apart from that of one Indonesian.
The latest claims follow a string of NIS briefings on ISIS activity in recent months, and come as the National Assembly, the parliament, remains divided over the passage of a set of controversial anti-terrorism bills.
In October, the spy agency told a National Assembly hearing that it blocked five foreigners from entering the country carrying ammonium nitrate, which can be used to make explosives, and prevented two Koreans from attempting to join ISIS.
The following month, NIS chief Lee Byung-ho raised the specter of North Korean collusion with the infamous Islamist group, while conceding that no clear proof existed. Pyongyang, which has close links with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime, lambasted the suggestion as absurd.
Song Dae-sung, a professor of political science at Konkuk University who served as a brigadier general in the South Korean air force, told Asia Times that the intelligence from the NIS called for a new approach to terrorism.
“I think there could be a great danger for South Korea in the future,” Song said. “North Korea is an entity that is very good at provocations that change one’s thinking and defy estimation. ISIS, too, is a brutal terror group. In the case of them being affiliated, the danger to South Korea could be severe.”
Song said that it is possible ISIS members could enter the country or that associates of migrants who’d joined the group could still remain here.
“So, the South Korean government absolutely needs a new approach including the intimate sharing of intelligence and countermeasures with friendly countries such as the United State and Israel,” he said.
With the support of President Park Geun-hye and her Saenuri Party, the NIS has been urging the passage of new anti-terrorism laws to boost its intelligence-gathering capabilities, including a bill first proposed after the September 11 attacks. The bills have failed to make headway because of opposition from the liberal Minjoo Party of Korea, which is wary of giving the NIS greater powers.
Many Koreans distrust the spy agency over its involvement in a raft of domestic scandals, including an effort to sway the last presidential election in favor of the ruling conservatives.
Robert E. Kelly, who lectures on terrorism at Pusan National University, told Asia Times that South Korea’s response to Islamic terrorism should take into account the low risk to the country.
“Korea, because of the demilitarized zone, is effectively an island and the stopping power of water means refugees don’t really get here. It’s hard for terrorists to get here, everybody can be vetted through a few small ports of entry,” said Kelly.
South Korea has a tiny Muslim community, comprising less than half a percent of the population, and so far just one citizen has been confirmed to have travelled abroad to wage violent jihad. The country has never suffered Islamic terrorism on its soil, although three of its citizens were murdered by Islamist militants after being taken hostage in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2004 and 2007, respectively.
North Korea has typically been responsible for civilian-directed violence. Most infamously, North Korean agents bombed Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987, killing 115 people.
Kelly said that South Korea’s security experience with North Korea should leave it equipped to deal with other threats and voiced concerns about giving the NIS sweeping new powers.
“The big lesson I think to learn from the Americans after 9/11 is not to overreact,” he said. “That’s what I am really concerned about — that they are going to give the NIS $100 million and say go play terror and nobody knows what the hell that means.”
John Power is a journalist who has reported on North and South Korea since 2010. His work has appeared in outlets including The Daily Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, NK News, Asian Geographic, The Diplomat, The Korea Herald and Narratively, among others.