More Unequal Justice: Va. Man Sentenced to 9 Years in Spy Case

Prosecutors Say Former Navy Employee Gave Information to S. Korea

July 12, 1997 - The Washington Post - Brooke A. Masters

Former Navy computer specialist Robert C. Kim was sentenced yesterday to nine years in prison for spying after prosecutors said Kim passed classified documents to his native South Korea so that the country would buy a computer system from his brother's company.

Kim, 57, who was arrested Sept. 24, originally was indicted on espionage charges that carried a life sentence. He pleaded guilty to conspiring to gather national defense information, which has a maximum sentence of 10 years.

At the sentencing in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert C. Chesnut told Judge Leonie M. Brinkema that FBI wiretaps had captured Kim and his brother, Young Gon Kim, discussing plans to develop and sell a multimillion-dollar computer system for tracking ship movements.

Kim, of Sterling, knew through his job at the Office of Naval Intelligence that the South Koreans were negotiating to buy such a system from the U.S. government, and he and his brother discussed the "redevelopment" of the American system so they could sell it themselves, according to court documents.

"Robert Kim was a man who had considerable debt and was a few years away from retirement," Chesnut said. "He was looking to cash in on what he had learned at the Office of Naval Intelligence."

Kim, a naturalized American citizen, has insisted since his arrest that he gathered secret documents about China and the Korean peninsula because he wanted to to help the country where he was born and where his parents still live. His attorneys contend that Kim was manipulated by his handler, South Korean navy Capt. Baek Dong-Il. Attorney James Gore said the brother's company, COSCO, based in New Jersey, manufactures ball bearings for South Korean tanks, not military computer equipment.

"There was a great deal of political naivete. . . . He was misguided," another Kim attorney, Mark Sandground Sr., said yesterday. "He did not have the intent to commit the kind of acts to which he has pleaded guilty."

And Kim said, "I crossed a line I was not supposed to cross, but I am not a spy or an agent for South Korea."

Kim's arrest exposed tensions in the alliance between the United States and South Korea. The South Korean government immediately recalled Baek, and officials there have never stated publicly whether upper-level officials knew and approved of Baek and Kim's efforts.

Yesterday, Chesnut said in court that the FBI wiretaps had caught Baek saying to Kim, "From the headquarters, many cables of praise come to me."

At the sentencing hearing, Kim's attorneys asked Brinkema to reduce the sentence because of his previously exemplary life and the community service he has done for his church and volunteer groups.

"I have never seen somebody who has a history of so many prior good works, who has done such a good job of raising his family, who has such a good employment record," Gore said.

More than two dozen Kim supporters packed the courtroom, and some wept openly during the proceedings. Brinkema said she had received 30 to 40 letters urging leniency in the case.

Kim apologized to his family, friends and colleagues and "especially the many Korean Americans who have worked hard to establish a solid and honest foundation in this country."

Choking up as he spoke of missing his younger daughter's graduation from the University of Virginia, Kim said, "It is my most fervent prayer to God that I will be able to reunite with my family as soon as possible."

Prosecutors, however, asked that Kim receive nine years. "Robert Kim owes an apology to all Americans because his love for another country came ahead of his responsibilities [to this one]. . . . He betrayed all of us," Chesnut said.

Brinkema ruled that Kim's community service did not merit a sentence reduction, and she criticized Kim for suggesting that he pass documents to Baek at the church where he was an elder. "That is horrible hypocrisy," the judge said.

"It is a tragic time in your life, in the life of your family and in the life of this country," Brinkema told Kim. "People like you ought not to be standing before this court. . . . But what is done is done.

"I can't accept that you were the victim of someone else's activities. You knew what you were doing. You knew it could not help the United States."

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