Korean Spy Case Takes More Serious Turn
David Johnston - The New York Times - INTERNATIONAL - October 6, 1996
WASHINGTON, Oct 2 - What appeared last week to be a low-level spying incident between the United States and South Korea has grown into a more serious case, with prosecutors saying today that they would charge an American Intelligence analyst with espionage, an accusation reserved for highly damaging breaches of national security.
Freshly declassified documents in the case also show that the analyst, Robert C. Kim, who is accused of supplying classified documents to the South Korean Embassy here, attracted the attention of senior military officials in Seoul who flew to the United States to meet with him in March in a session that was secretly videotaped by the F.B.I.
A senior Clinton Administration official said that the evidence against Mr. Kim, a Korean-born American citizen who was arrested last week, had raised "serious questions" that went beyond his individual case.
Among them is whether the South Korean military, working through its embassy here, has engaged in a broader, systematic effort to spy on its closest ally and protector out of a fear that Washington is withholding intelligence data or that it is secretly dealing directly with North Korea.
However, none of the evidence that has been made public so far indicates that other Americans are suspected of passing information to South Korea.
*In public, both governments have tried to play down the significance of the case involving Robert C. Kim, a civilian analyst for the Office of Naval Intelligence, because of fears that any division between the two close allies would be exploited by North Korea, at a moment of severely heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Fears that the United States would work more closely with North Korea without the South's approval have bubbled just beneath the surface of the Seoul-Washington alliance in recent years. There were sharp differences between the two countries when the Administration struck a deal under which the North agreed to freeze its nuclear program in return for supplies of fuel oil and the construction of nuclear power plants in the North. While the United States and South Korea have patched over the disagreements, there is still an uneasiness in their relationship.
Donald Gregg, the former American Ambassador to Seoul and once the C.I.A. station chief there, said, "We are very close working partners, but it is fair to say that there is a continued residue of suspicion in Seoul."
Mr. Kim worked for the office of Naval Intelligence, which also employed Jonathan Pollard, an intelligence analyst who was sentenced to life in prison for passing secrets to Israel. Life in prison is the maximum punishment for an espionage conviction.
Until now, Mr. Kim had been charged with a less serious offense that carried a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Senior Administration officials say that they still do not fully understand the scope of the suspected South Korean spying effort. Nor do they know whether it was authorized by any of the civilian leaders under President Kim Young Sam. But one official said that there was no evidence so far that the effort went beyond the South Korean navy, working through the large military attaché office housed within the South Korean Embassy.
While Mr. Kim's approaches to the South Korean Embassy were clumsy at best - it appears that the F.B.I. was videotaping much of his activity - on the South Korean side he was being dealt with by experienced military intelligence officials.
"This isn't amateur hour," an American official said.
The role of several senior South Korean military officials was disclosed today in a transcript of a meeting at the Sheraton National Hotel in Arlington, Va., on March 20, between Mr. Kim and four Korean officials, including the navy attaché at the South Korean Embassy, Baek Dong II.
Two of the Korean military officers who were secretly videotaped appear to have traveled from South Korea to help recruit Mr. Kim and evaluate the information he had supplied to Mr. Baek. After Mr. Kim's arrest, Mr. Baek was rapidly recalled to Seoul.
The transcript indicates that Mr. Kim's conversation with the South Koreans focused on his knowledge of a classified computerized command system that linked ships to satellites. The South Koreans are quoted as saying they were aware of the system but believed that the United States might deny the South Koreans full access to it.
Last week prosecutors accused Mr. Kim of handing over secret documents about North Korea. But they did not disclose the nature of those documents, which apparently had been printed out from a computer system Mr. Kim was cleared to use.
At the South Korean Embassy, Ambassador Park Woo said through a spokesman that he would have no comment until an investigation under way in Seoul had been completed. American officials said it was possible that Ambassador Park was unaware of any spying efforts in his own embassy, because the military attaches usually report directly to their commanders in Seoul.
Mr. Kim was cleared to read "sensitive compartmented information," which included finished military intelligence assessments based on secretly intercepted communications. He was arrested after agents covertly videotaped him in his office in suburban Maryland stripping documents of their classified markings, photocopying them and placing them in manila envelopes which were to be handed to Mr. Baek.
Mr. Kim is suspected of passing nearly 50 documents to the South Koreans, the officials said. He has been dismissed from his job.
The 27-page transcript of the March meeting was made public today by prosecutors who revealed further details about the case to thwart an attempt by Mr. Kim's lawyer to win his client's release on bail. Robert Chesnut, an Assistant United States Attorney, said that Mr. Kim might flee to South Korea. In denying bail for Mr. Kim, United States District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema said the evidence against him was "overwhelming." He is being held at a jail in Virginia.
Law enforcement officials have said they had no evidence that Mr. Kim was paid for his information.
Today the officials said that he was a flight risk because he owed $100,000 in credit card debt and had a third mortgage on his house.
The transcript showed that Mr. Kim, 56, told the South Koreans that he expected to retire soon and wanted help finding a job, possibly with South Korean agencies responsible for combatting drug trafficking. He offered to meet with these agencies to learn their intelligence requirements so he could obtain information before he left the Government.