South Korean spies have been caught cultivating public servants in Canberra to obtain trade secrets, with one Australian official sacked for disclosing sensitive information.
Previously suppressed information released by the Federal Court reveals that South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) had sought “to obtain sensitive information” on trade negotiations between Canberra and Seoul.
A senior Australian agricultural trade specialist, Dr Yeon Kim, has lost his security clearance and employment with the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation alleged Dr Kim was involved in the “foreign interference” by the South Korean intelligence operatives.
The revelation of economic espionage is embarrassing to Seoul and Canberra as Australia has strongly backed South Korea in its stand-off with North Korea. Last month Australian troops took part in joint military exercises with South Korea and the United States for the first time.
Although engaged in what ASIO described as “inappropriate activities” harmful to Australia’s interests, no South Korean spies have been expelled from Australia. Instead, in an effort to maintain good relations with the NIS, ASIO took legal action to prevent disclosure of the incident and protect the identities of the South Korean agents so they might continue their clandestine careers.
In mid-2010 ASIO learnt Dr Kim had been meeting a South Korean diplomat declared to the Australian government as an NIS liaison officer. Dr Kim, the principal author of an ABARES study of the Korean beef market, had taken part in free trade agreement negotiations between Australia and South Korea in December 2009.
ASIO officers interviewed Dr Kim in October 2010. On September 15, 2011, ASIO director-general David Irvine issued an adverse security assessment of Dr Kim “after finding that he had had contact with successive NIS officers who he had not reported as required by Australian government policy”.
ASIO alleged Dr Kim had been involved in clandestine contact with and provided sensitive information to an NIS officer, South Korean embassy minister-counsellor Hoo-Young Park.
ASIO determined that Dr Kim had been “successfully cultivated” by the NIS; that he had been “deceptive” in his responses to questioning; and there was a “specific threat” to Australian government information. ASIO recommended his secret-level security clearance be revoked, effectively ending his career as a public servant.
Dr Kim has said his contact with South Korean diplomats was purely social and any discussion of trade issues was confined to publicly available information.
Published: May 2, 2013 – 7:57AM
© 2013 Fairfax Media