Report

Is South Korea Stealing U.S. Military Secrets?

Their tanks, missiles, and electronic warfare gear look an awful lot like ours.     

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel watched a live-fire exercise in South Korea last month in which American and Korean tanks operated side-by-side in a display of military might between two trusted partners fond of describing theirs as a "blood alliance."

But just beneath that relationship's surface is a growing unease. South Korea, one of America's strongest partners in East Asia, is aggressively targeting U.S. advanced technology for its own use in a variety of Korean weapons programs, Foreign Policy has learned. From anti-ship missiles, electronic warfare equipment, torpedoes, a multiple-launch rocket system, and even components on a Korean-made Aegis destroyer, the United States is concerned about the uncanny resemblance those systems bear to American weaponry. Even the tanks Hagel watched on the range that day may be partial knock-offs: The Korean models have fire control systems that appear to be all-but-identical to the American versions.

Though the United States long has had systems in place to monitor technology-sharing with allies, the case with South Korea has become particularly acute in the last few years. As the United States pivots East and Asia's once sleepy defense industries begin to awaken, it has quietly begun to scrutinize its technology-sharing relationships with such allies, conducting secret but robust "dialogues" -- diplomatic-speak for a series of private exchanges on tech-sharing between the two countries -- to ensure that American secrets stay that way.

That's particularly true of South Korea, which on Sept. 30 celebrated the 60-year anniversary of the mutual defense treaty with the United States. The Koreans hosted Hagel for two large military parades, followed by a gala evening event with fruit drinks the color of the Korean flag, glowing speeches about the alliance, and much talk of katchi kapshida -- "we stand together."

But the United States is watching closely as the South Korean defense industry shoots for a larger market share. The country is gaining a reputation for gleaning as much as it can from American advanced technology, exploiting any opening it sees. The very fact that discussions are underway with South Korea is a sign of the level of concern, an administration official says. As the Obama White House counters mounting worries among European allies that it is listening in on top leaders' conversations, the United States is also scrambling to make sure South Korea isn't absconding with the secrets that have made American defense platforms world-class.

The South Koreans are known for making knock-offs and improving upon them. But from a variety of Korean-made sensor equipment, anti-ship missiles, and electronic warfare systems, the United States sees the Koreans going after American technology and, potentially, copycatting it.

"They are very good at taking full advantage of any loopholes with any type of agreement," a former government official who worked in Seoul told FP.

That's problematic on several levels. Not only could Seoul sell its newly-acquired advanced weaponry to another country that could use it against American interests, but proprietary American technologies could be sold by other countries to undermine the American defense industry. That would come just as the U.S. industry confronts the biggest shrinkage of Pentagon dollars in more than a decade and is looking to diversify its markets overseas.

Hagel stood there that day at the Rodriguez Live Fire Complex in Korea with his senior military assistant, Lt. Gen. Robert "Abe" Abrams, after whose father the famous American tank was named. The South Koreans's K1 tank was based on the design of the Abrams, but the Koreans have added their own touches, from a hydro-pneumatic suspension and torsion bars to a fording kit for crossing rivers. The newest version of the K1 tank, the K1A1, possesses upgrades that include a 120mm smoothbore gun, updated electronics, and a top-of-the-line fire control system to improve accuracy and effectiveness. But the irony of the joint exercise designed to put the relationship on display may not have escaped either Hagel or Abrams as they stood there that day. American officials fear that fire control system aboard the K1A1 tank is essentially a rip-off of its own technology, which, if true, would represent a theft of a sensitive -- and marketable -- capability.

Ditto for the Koreans's Haesung anti-ship missile, first developed in the late 1990s to be better than the American-made Harpoon anti-ship missile. Again, American defense officials have raised concerns with the Koreans that the technology upon which the Harpoon missile is based is very similar to the American technology.

The relationship between the United States and South Korea on the point of technology-sharing is extremely sensitive, so much so that a number of outside experts who would normally speak to such an issue refused to do so or would only talk privately out of a fear of insulting a trusted ally. Kath Hicks, the former principal deputy undersecretary of defense at the Pentagon until leaving earlier this year, summed it up: "The alliance is incredibly important to us and it's incredibly important to them, and there are things about friendships that are best discussed in private."

But leaks within the South Korean news media recently indicated South Korea has begun to use its press to take swipes at the United States. One story in August in Hankook Ilbo suggested South Korea faced a backlash from the United States: "The United States has reportedly launched an investigation into whether the ROK has stolen U.S. military technologies in developing its weapons," the story said. "Observers speculate the United States may intend to put the brakes on the ROK's growing weapons exports."

Speaking to the issue for the first time, American officials dismiss the idea of a series of "investigations," but do say that as they look to the evident ambitions of South Korea's defense industry, they must be extremely wary. The concerns with South Korea come at a critical time for the United States. It is attempting to display its commitment to the Asia-Pacific, spending billions of dollars to do so. But it is also relying on its regional partners to take responsibility for more and more of the security needs in the region as its defense dollars shrink. That means the demand for U.S. technology and weapons systems are growing. But so is the suspicion that as some allies' defense industries mature, standing too close to them -- and sharing too much technology -- poses a significant risk. The fears about South Korea's demand for weapons technology are not new. Direct evidence that the country is stealing American technology is hard to come by, but the suspicions harbored by U.S. officials are so pronounced that a senior Pentagon official was willing to take the unusual step of speaking on the record to FP about them.

"We need people to have good capabilities," said Beth McCormick, the head of the Pentagon's Defense Technology Security Administration, or DTSA, in an interview in her office a few miles from the Pentagon. "But at the same time, when we provide that technology, the United States has the perspective that we want to make sure that it is used for the purpose for which we provide it." McCormick would not discuss any specific platforms on which DTSA is applying additional scrutiny, saying only that the United States is in a robust "dialogue" with Korea and must ensure that the technologies it shares, even with trusted allies, are properly safeguarded. "We really want to have an advanced dialogue with Korea because we saw the fact that Korea has definitely made it very clear that they want to have a bigger, indigenous defense industry," McCormick said.

Right now, the dialogue between the two countries is focused heavily on the potential sale of the advanced F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to the South Koreans. American officials are putting into place a strict security agreement to ensure that nothing is shared, either with the wrong people, or for use by a buyer of a Korean-made copycat for Korea's own competitive purposes. The South Koreans are interested in the F-35, but their interest comes at the same time as South Korea's bid to build its own stealth jet, raising bureaucratic eyebrows in the United States. It could be the equivalent of South Korea taking a fighter jet on a test drive, as it were, flying it around the corner to kick its tires, only then to return it to the dealership and say it's not interested, but first looking under the hood and taking some pictures.

"If any country is taking our JSF around the corner to try to exploit it, that's going to be a real problem," McCormick said.

Under the Arms Export Control Act, allies can re-sell certain American technologies but only after approval from the U.S. State Department that the country is in compliance with the "end use" of that technology.

The United States can't be too careful, McCormick said. If, in the future, the U.S. government sees that its technology has been exploited, that will have a deleterious effect on the technology-sharing relationship with that country, she said. "If we have any information or any evidence that there are issues out there, it immediately raises concerns for us, and depending upon what we think about it, it might affect what type of technology we might provide in the future," she said.

The Koreans have been receptive, McCormick said, creating a government agency similar to her own to monitor and protect the technology. But there remains a worry about that agency's independence since it falls under another one that is helping to promote the South Korean defense industry -- a matter, in effect, of the fox guarding the henhouse.

None of these concerns surprises U.S. government officials who have worked Korea issues. The former government official who worked in Seoul but who would only speak on background said the South Koreans have an aggressive stance toward technology as they build their defense business. And while it's unclear if they are stealing American secrets, they'll do whatever is possible. "If they thought they would have a really good chance of getting away with it? Probably," the former official said. Unlike France or Israel, South Korea has never had a reputation like other American allies for being overly aggressive as an economic spy. But as its ambitions for its defense industry grow, experts who know South Korea note that Seoul has long had an appetite for American secrets. It paid former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst Robert Kim to slide the government critical intelligence in the late 1990s. Kim was caught and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1997. Such practice is a fact of life, the former U.S. government official said. "Friends spy on friends," the individual as much as shrugged.

In May 2011, Young Su Kim, a former vice president at a Colorado-based firm, Rocky Mountain Instrument Company, helped in the illegal export to South Korea of military technical data for prisms that are used in guidance or targeting systems in unmanned aerial vehicles, AC-130 gunships, tanks, and missile systems. He was sentenced to five years behind bars, according to data provided by the Department of Justice.

And in 2010, Juwhan Yun, a naturalized American citizen of Korean orgin was sentenced to 57 months in prison after pleading guilty to attempting to illegally export to South Korea components for a 20mm gun and a Russian fighter jet, RD-180 rocket propulsion systems, and other technology without the State Department's approval. He was arrested the year before in Florida and later indicted for attempting to purchase rocket materials for a company working on the Korean Satellite Launch Vehicle, according to the Justice Department. Yun had also been convicted in 1989 of conspiracy for violating the Arms Export Control Act in connection to exporting 500 quarter-ton bombs of sarin gas to Iran, none of which made it to its final destination, according to data provided by Justice.

Driven by its fears of aggression from the North -- as well as its strong desire to export its wares -- South Korea has never kept secret its ambitions to build an indigenous defense business. Seoul has marketed its defense products not only in Asia but in Europe and even the United States. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute ranks South Korea as 16th in arms exporters globally under the top six: the United States, Russia, Germany, France, China, and Britain.

"They are minor league," said Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "Medium league at best." But, Wezeman said, they are extremely active, marketing their defense products around the world. "They have big hopes for more arms sales, and if you believe them, they will be in a couple of years at the same level as Israel, Germany, and France," he said, adding the caveat: "It's probably a bit overly optimistic."

South Korea put itself on the map late last year when Norway made overtures toward South Korea to build a conventional submarine. Much of the technology upon which such a platform is based comes from the Germans. But the sub is an example of Korean innovation. Unlike the Japanese, who are seen in many ways as imitators, the Koreans are themselves more inventive, taking what they glean from other exporters and improving upon it.

"Don't underestimate the Koreans," Wezeman said. "They are quite capable of doing very advanced things themselves."

Many experts believe that South Korea uses the threat posed by North Korea to build its own defense industry -- and justify drawing American advanced technology closer. Within South Korea, the country sees itself as a developed ally of the United States, but as its defense industry inches its way onto the global stage, it feels increasingly entitled to obtain the best, most advanced technology available. That may be coming at the expense of the United States, which is viewed differently within Korea by different generations. The Korean War-era generation views the United States as a strong partner, the one that helped win the war and for whom loyalty is paramount. But a younger, more tech-savvy generation is growing up in a Korea that sees itself as, at least one day, a peer competitor.

At the same time, South Korea isn't completely sure of itself when it comes to operational control of forces on the Peninsula. Currently, the United States retains authority over all forces in South Korea. If there was a significant provocation from North Korea, for example, the U.S. commander in South Korea would assume control not only of his own 28,000-person force, but South Korea's as well. The United States for years has wanted to hand over operational control of those forces to its ally. But so far that hasn't worked. Efforts to formalize the transfer of control, in 2009 and again in 2012, never went through. Currently, that formal transfer is scheduled for 2015, but again, the South Koreans want to delay it.

Strategically, the South Koreans are still very much dependent on the United States. But when it comes to defense exports, the country is emerging as one ready to move out of the nest. And the United States is worried the student has access to too many of the teacher's lesson plans.

"Now they are on the level of where they can be competitive with us," says the former government official. "At what point does the student become the teacher?"

JACQUELYN MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images

Report

Biological Attack

Polio is back from the brink of extinction -- ravaging the battlefields of Syria and spreading across the Middle East.

As the annual hajj came to its end in early October, and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims departed Saudi Arabia having honored the highest traditions of Islam, the kingdom cautiously breathed a sigh of relief: No epidemic erupted among the roughly 1.4 million visitors. But though it may have seemed that attentions were focused on concern over the possible spread of the Middle East respiratory syndrome MERS -- a disease that has affected more than 135 people in eight countries, killing 45 percent of those infected -- for months Saudi health authorities have been keeping a nervous eye on another disease, polio, which is spreading rapidly across the Middle East, most recently inside war-torn Syria.

Though Saudi Arabia has been polio-free for decades, its Ministry of the Hajj has always borne special responsibility for the health and safety of all religious pilgrims to the holy city of Mecca. In Muslim tradition Crown Prince Abdullah, himself, is the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, accountable for any tragedies that befall sacred visitors.

Given the intense religious significance of Saudi Arabia's responsibilities, all possible disease outbreaks among pilgrims are a concern for the government. But it has been a long time since the Ministry of the Hajj had to take a position that stands diametrically opposite to the stance held by some followers of the faith: when it came to polio, the Kingdom stood firmly against Muslim extremism. This year, the ministry insisted that all pilgrims be fully immunized against polio, and bring proof of vaccination as part of their visa application process. Given that Muslim extremists -- the Taliban and some al-Qaeda adherents -- oppose polio vaccination, and have executed immunizers, the Saudi position was gutsy.

Whether it was successful, however, we'll have to wait and see. The hajj has ended, and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims are now returning to their homelands all over the world. Because the incubation time for polio can be as long as 35 days Saudi authorities will not be sure that their measures worked until mid-November.

Nonetheless, it's clear that polio -- which just two years ago was on the verge of eradication, with active cases confined to just three countries -- is resurgent, and the news is grim.

For the first time in 16 years, wild polio viruses are spreading in war-torn Syria, causing paralysis in afflicted children. On Oct. 19, the regime's Ministry of Public Health declared a polio emergency and the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed a "hot outbreak" that is actively expanding around Damascus. In the last week, polio cases have been identified in Ethiopia, Somalia, and among about a dozen Somali refugees in Kenya. As of Oct. 16, the number of 2013 active polio cases found in the three "endemic nations" (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria) are far outnumbered by the toll in new outbreaks outside those countries: 99 children have contracted the disease in endemic nations, versus 197 in outbreak areas like the Horn of Africa, which had been free of polio. And in mid-October the United Nations Security Council called upon Khartoum and Juba to carry out mass vaccination campaigns after three cases of polio were found in the new nation of South Sudan.

Polio is not a mysterious disease -- how it is spread among people and the role vaccination can play in its prevention are well understood. The world has struggled for decades to eradicate polio -- a global effort that has cost billions of dollars and millions of man hours. Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates added his weight and wealth to the polio campaign a few years ago, noting this summer that, "We're raising the money to get it done by 2018. When these problems leave the rich world, they're out of sight, out of mind.... Polio is where we have a very concrete plan. It's raising $5.5 billion -- of which the [Bill & Melinda Gates] Foundation is going to give $1.8 billion. If we get credibility from the polio success, we can be more articulate about a malaria or measles elimination plan."

But politics and religion can foil even the best technology and financing.

Victory seemed near in 2011 when vaccination coverage reached levels sufficient in most of the world to stop spread of the virus (which typically occurs through fecal transmission from infected individuals into water supplies or via close contact with others). By early 2011, polio was confined to Pakistan, northern Nigeria, and Afghanistan -- all areas in which distrust of government and Western health services in Muslim communities was high. Backed by the Rotary Club International, Gates, and the Global Alliance of Vaccine Initiatives (GAVI), health officials worked closely with leading imams worldwide to assuage fears about immunization and counter false claims that the vaccines would either sterilize children or give them AIDS. The WHO was finally full of optimism about the polio fight.

But that summer, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency narrowed its 10-year search for Osama bin Laden to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In hopes of confirming bin Laden's presence behind the compound's fortifications, American recruited Pakistani physician Dr. Shakil Afridi to carry out a fake hepatitis B immunization effort in the area. The scheme called for Afridi to gain entry to the compound, needle-immunize the children inside, and bring the used syringes to CIA operatives for DNA identification of the youngsters. Afridi never managed to get permission from the compound's sentries, and the effort failed.

When the CIA scheme was reported in July 2011 by the Guardian, it spurred outcry from public health leaders (myself included) regarding the peril posed by linking the agency's efforts to already politically sensitive vaccination campaigns. Horribly, the backlash unfolded as we had predicted. Today, polio is spreading in Somalia and Pakistan in areas where Taliban and other Islamist extremist groups have managed to contort the entire CIA/hepatitis saga: Collusion in immunization efforts is, they claim, tantamount to supporting the CIA, U.S. drone attacks, and a laundry list of other perceived American sins against Islam. Never mind that the polio vaccine is oral, no needles are used, and the Afridi/CIA scheme was all about those needles -- the "Big Lie" has spread. To date, extremists in Pakistan have waged countless attacks on polio immunization workers -- most of them, unpaid female volunteers -- and their security details, killing at least 20 of them since December 2012, and injuring many more in bomb, knifing, and gun assaults.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia this summer issued unique health requirements for umrah and hajj pilgrims hoping to avoid spread of disease, after the WHO in May called upon all travelers worldwide to get vaccinated. Among them was insistence on polio vaccination, including a requirement of valid certification from local health authorities. Which meant that those waging attacks on polio vaccinators (allegedly in the name of Islam), could not engage in the religion's most holy ritual unless they could prove that they were fully immunized.

But the Islamic world now faces a genuine crisis with polio, as radical factions continue to attack vaccinators and decry immunization as a dangerous Western scheme. The full extent of the Somali outbreak is not known, as foreign health professionals now find the country too dangerous. Even the die-hard war zone physicians of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) gave up on Somalia in August citing the deteriorating security atmosphere. MSF workers have suffered stolen medical supplies, kidnappings, violence of all kinds, and other atrocities. The organization's departure left Somalia's health system in a shambles, undermining an already fragile network of public health clinics that had served as the primary centers of child vaccination. The United Nation's child health program, UNICEF, distributes vaccine supplies to Somalia, but has pulled its personnel back to Kenya. (Somali refugees have carried the virus into Kenya and Ethiopia.) And since June, when al-Shabab attacked a U.N. complex in Mogadishu, there has been a steady outflow from the country of both humanitarian organizations and Somali refugees. Last month's al-Shabab attack on a Nairobi shopping mall has further cemented belief that the nation's security situation is unraveling, putting all forms of public health -- including polio control -- in a tailspin.

Across the Arab Spring regions of the Middle East, the public health situations have spiraled out of control, with outbreaks and failed vaccination efforts noted this year from Morocco to the Iranian borders, Alexandria to Lake Victoria.

And now, some seven million Syrians are now displaced, scattered across Syrian territory and neighboring nations of Turkey, Kurd-controlled Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan. At least 1 million of them are children under 12 years of age, according to UNICEF. Inside Syria, the public health situation has deteriorated so markedly that the population is now beset by the return of most vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles, hepatitis B, whooping cough, and polio. More than a third of the nation's hospitals have been bombed to smithereens, another 20 percent have sustained sufficient damage to render them useless, and some 15,000 health professionals have fled the nation. On Sept. 15, a group of doctors and Nobel laureates issued a plea to the world, saying Syria's healthcare was "at the breaking point."

This month, Jordan will launch a costly national child immunization program to stop the spread of measles and polio from the encampments of Syrian refugees to the rest of the nation. Lebanon and Turkey are anxiously watching as the Syrian refugee populations within their borders swell to the point of bursting and illnesses spread. For Lebanon, the situation is especially dire: not only does the added Syrian population increase the country's human population by 25 percent, but it brings with it many of the same factions and disputes that were behind Lebanon's bloody civil war in the 1980s. And Israel, which has been conducting a mass immunization campaign, vaccinating approximately 850,000 children since August 2013 -- when polio viruses were discovered in sewer systems located in several parts of the country -- is far from completing its efforts on this front.

Indeed, the core of the polio crisis remains in radical Islamist areas of Pakistan and these attacks on immunizers have been brutal, security details have been unable to protect themselves, much less the healthcare workers, and there is discussion of issuing a global travel advisory regarding the dangers of contracting polio in the country.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia practices Sharia law, under Sunni Wahabbi interpretations. As the home of the Islamic world's most sacred sites, and birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed, Saudi Arabia can set standards for Muslims worldwide. Having issued a decree over the summer calling upon all pilgrims to the hajj to demonstrate they had received valid polio immunization, authorities took an important step: Riyadh signaled that regardless of what shenanigans Afridi and the CIA were involved in two years ago, protecting children from permanent paralysis merits support for vaccination. We can only hope that the Saudi health decree will be heard and heeded across the Muslim world -- before it is too late and polio spreads to under-vaccinated regions of Africa, Asia, perhaps even Europe. Given the shocking decline in child immunization compliance across much of Europe and the United Kingdom, driven by false claims that vaccines cause autism, many children may be especially vulnerable were polio to be reintroduced to the region.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images