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Questions abound on SKorea spy claim about North Korean leader's uncle, including: Is it true?

  • FILE - In this Saturday, July 27, 2013 file photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, second left, flanked by Yang Hyong Sop, second right, vice president of the Presidium of North Korea's parliament, his uncle Jang Song Thaek, right, and Choe Ryong Hae, vice Marshal, left, as he tours the newly opened Fatherland Liberation War Museum, as part of celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice in Pyongyang, North Korea. Two South Korean lawmakers say they were told by intelligence officials that two associates of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's powerful uncle Jang were executed last month. They say the uncle has not been seen in public since then and may have been dismissed. There was no way to independently confirm the report about Jang. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

    FILE - In this Saturday, July 27, 2013 file photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, second left, flanked by Yang Hyong Sop, second right, vice president of the Presidium of North Korea's parliament, his uncle Jang Song Thaek, right, and Choe Ryong Hae, vice Marshal, left, as he tours the newly opened Fatherland Liberation War Museum, as part of celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice in Pyongyang, North Korea. Two South Korean lawmakers say they were told by intelligence officials that two associates of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's powerful uncle Jang were executed last month. They say the uncle has not been seen in public since then and may have been dismissed. There was no way to independently confirm the report about Jang. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012 file photo provided by China's Xinhua News Agency, Jang Song Thaek, North Korea's vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, attends the third meeting on developing the economic zones in North Korea, in Beijing. Two South Korean lawmakers say they were told by intelligence officials that two associates of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's powerful uncle Jang were executed last month. They say the uncle has not been seen in public since then and may have been dismissed. There was no way to independently confirm the report about Jang. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Li Xin, File)  NO SALES

    In this Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012 file photo provided by China's Xinhua News Agency, Jang Song Thaek, North Korea's vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, attends the third meeting on developing the economic zones in North Korea, in Beijing. Two South Korean lawmakers say they were told by intelligence officials that two associates of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's powerful uncle Jang were executed last month. They say the uncle has not been seen in public since then and may have been dismissed. There was no way to independently confirm the report about Jang. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Li Xin, File) NO SALES  (The Associated Press)

  • People watch a TV news program showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, and Kim's uncle, Jang Song Thaek, second from left, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013. Two South Korean lawmakers said Tuesday they were told by intelligence officials that two associates of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's powerful uncle were executed last month. They said the uncle has not been seen publicly since then, indicating he may have been dismissed. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

    People watch a TV news program showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, and Kim's uncle, Jang Song Thaek, second from left, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013. Two South Korean lawmakers said Tuesday they were told by intelligence officials that two associates of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's powerful uncle were executed last month. They said the uncle has not been seen publicly since then, indicating he may have been dismissed. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)  (The Associated Press)

Before meaning can be assigned to South Korean spy claims that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un likely sacked the country's second most powerful official — his uncle — comes a fundamental question: Is it even true?

Seoul's intelligence agency has a spotty track record of predicting what's going on inside a country that may be the most secretive, unfriendly and difficult-to-navigate in the world for outsiders.

South Korea's National Intelligence Service is thought to get its information in part by closely monitoring Pyongyang's media for signs of change; by talking to defectors in Seoul, with a priority given to high-ranking ones and those who claim continuing ties with North Koreans; and by cultivating contacts in the North. All these groups, of course, have their own agendas.

The already tough job is made worse by the lingering bitter rivalry between the two Koreas. Not only is the Korean Peninsula still in a technical state of war — a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended without a formal peace treaty — but citizens of both countries cannot legally visit or contact the other without government permission.

North Korean media have so far been silent, but it might be only a matter of time before outsiders learn if the NIS is right about Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un's uncle and a man widely seen as a kingmaker who guided the young leader as he consolidated power. Pyongyang's political and military elite may gather Dec. 17 to mark the second anniversary of the death of Kim's father, Kim Jong Il.

For now, however, some analysts question the accuracy of the spy agency's claim Tuesday that Jang may have been dismissed, which appears to be based only on Jang's nearly monthlong disappearance from North Korean media, something not unheard of in the leader's circle, and the agency's belief that two of his associates were publicly executed.

Here's a look at past hits and misses by South Korea's spy service:

ISLAND ATTACK:

Many in Seoul saw an intelligence breakdown in the spy agency's failure to predict North Korea's artillery bombardment of a front-line South Korean island in November 2010 that killed two civilians and two marines. At a closed-door parliamentary committee meeting after the attack, lawmakers said then spy chief Won Sei-hoon told them that his agency had intercepted North Korean communication indicating such an attack two months before it occurred but dismissed it as routine rhetoric.

KIM JONG IL'S HEALTH

The intelligence agency rejects allegations that it misjudged the repercussions of Kim Jong Il's deteriorating health in the years before his 2011 death by telling South Korean officials that the government faced imminent collapse. Instead, the agency says, it advised them that Kim remained in control of his government but that its instability had increased slightly because of his health problems and a botched currency revamp in 2009.

KIM JONG IL'S DEATH:

The NIS was widely criticized because of reports it learned of Kim Jong Il's 2011 death more than two days after it occurred, and in the same way that everyone else first heard of it: when a tear-choked North Korean television announcer read a formal statement. South Korean spies responded that they weren't alone — no intelligence agency in the world knew about the death before the North's public announcement, they say.

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Follow Foster Klug on Twitter at twitter.com/APklug