Derwinski Tipped S. Korea on Defector, Then Denied It

Times Staff Writers

Edward J. Derwinski, President-elect Bush’s choice to head the new Department of Veterans Affairs, concealed for more than five years that he had leaked confidential information in 1977 to a South Korean diplomat--a leak that federal investigators say could have cost the life of a Korean intelligence officer who was about to defect to the United States.

Derwinski, who served 24 years in Congress as a Republican from Chicago, publicly denied the charges when they were raised in 1978. He dismissed the leak allegations as “guilt by association” because he was known to be friendly toward anti-communist governments, including South Korea’s.

He refused to testify before a federal grand jury that investigated the matter, and he gave no statement to the House Ethics Committee, which also looked into the episode.

Both inquiries ended inconclusively. U.S. officials said that pursuing them could have disclosed sensitive “sources and methods” of the American intelligence community.


But the unpublished record of a 1983 congressional hearing shows that Derwinski admitted then that he had given the confidential information to a Korean diplomat in a phone call.

“This guy (the Korean defector) would have been severely punished or killed, as well as his family,” a senior law enforcement official said recently, noting that Korean CIA agents arrived at the defector’s home a half hour after FBI agents had escorted him to safety.

The September, 1977, phone conversation between Derwinski, who was in his congressional office, and the South Korean Embassy was recorded by U.S. intelligence and helped spark the subsequent investigation.

During the call, Derwinski leaked word of the planned defection, government sources said.

Episode May Haunt Him

Now, on the eve of Senate confirmation hearings on his nomination to head the new Veterans Department, Derwinski’s involvement in the episode and his early lack of candor are coming back to haunt him.

Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, wrote President-elect Bush last week saying that the charges “must be covered by the FBI in its customary background investigation.” Cranston asked for a copy of the FBI report before the committee’s hearing on Derwinski’s nomination.

FBI agents already have interviewed the nominee and are expected to focus on the incident in their background report.


The newly surfaced hearing record shows that, in 1983, Derwinski belatedly admitted the basic truth of the allegations. Documents show that Derwinski, now an undersecretary of state, made his first admissions in a closed meeting with senators just before he was confirmed to his first State Department post, as counselor, in March, 1983.

A transcript of Derwinski’s little-noticed confirmation hearing--never printed or published by the Senate but found in the National Archives--shows that Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R. I.) insisted on putting on the public record what Derwinski had told the panel privately the day before.

Pell referred to Derwinski’s telephoned tip to the Korean Embassy as “an error in judgment” and suggested that Derwinski “should say just what he did (say) to us yesterday in that meeting.”

Pell was referring to charges that Derwinski had tipped off the embassy that Sohn Ho Young, a high-ranking official of the Korean CIA, was preparing to defect in the face of an imminent transfer from his New York base back to South Korea.


The Justice Department and Congress at the time were investigating a scandal that came to be known as Koreagate--covert payments to members of Congress by South Koreans in an effort to influence U.S. policy toward that nation.

A panel on which Derwinski was the ranking Republican--the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on international relations--had secretly been in touch with Sohn and planned to have him testify about the Korean CIA’s involvement in the scandal. The information about Sohn’s plan to defect was so sensitive that former Rep. Don Fraser (D-Minn.), who was chairman of the subcommittee at the time, told only one other member about it--Derwinski.

The next day, the subcommittee was informed by a Justice Department official that the Korean CIA had been told of Sohn’s intention to defect. After trying unsuccessfully to warn Sohn, Fraser turned to the FBI, which dispatched agents to Sohn’s New Jersey home. They escorted the defector from his home, along with his family, about half an hour before Korean CIA officials arrived there to stop the defection.

According to the Senate transcript, Derwinski acknowledged that he had mentioned the imminent defection during a phone conversation with Korean diplomats on another subject. He said the defector was to be asked to testify as part of “an ongoing (subcommittee) investigation which I had opposed from the beginning.”


Derwinski said he had opposed the investigation because “I felt we were endangering U.S.-Korean relations at a time of the discussion of (U.S.) troop withdrawals.”

He told senators that he never mentioned the name of the intended defector and termed his leak “inadvertent.” He said he never gave the matter “any serious thought.” Derwinski added that “I considered this (Sohn’s planned testimony) sort of a grandstand development at the committee level, of which I did not approve.”

“I really did not think it would have any complications,” Derwinski said of the phone call, according to the transcript.

When asked if he realized that Sohn might be in danger as a result of his tip, Derwinski told the senators: “It never crossed my mind. In fact, I was not aware whether . . . the defection had actually taken place. . . . Hindsight is always better than foresight.”


Derwinski, who has had a reputation for candor during his 24 years in Congress and nearly six years at the State Department, refused to discuss his role in the Korean incident with Times reporters this week.

Bill Anderson, a former Chicago newspaperman who is assisting Derwinski during the change in administrations, described the incidents as “an 11-year-old story, a non-event.”

Not Charged With Anything

“He was not charged with any illegal or unethical conduct,” Anderson said. “That’s the operative comment.”


An attorney who represented Derwinski at the time refused to discuss the case.

Sheila Tate, a spokeswoman for the Bush transition office, said: “Any questions that arise will be answered by Mr. Derwinski at his confirmation hearings.” She added: “I am not privy to any FBI information.”

According to the 1983 transcript, members of the Senate panel commended Derwinski on his admission and said they were willing to forgive one instance of “poor judgment” when matched against 24 years of congressional service.

Derwinski last week paid a courtesy visit to Cranston, who will preside over his confirmation hearings. During their meeting, Cranston raised the Korean issue, and Derwinski neither admitted nor denied tipping off the Koreans, according to an individual who was present. He was “rather vague” about it, this source recalled.


Robert Boettcher, former staff director of the subcommittee on which Derwinski served, said Derwinski had been angry when he was accused of having leaked word of the defection. In a 1980 book about the Koreagate scandal, Boettcher said Derwinski had contended that his friendliness toward South Korea had led to the accusation and that he had told the staff: “I wind up as suspect No. 1 because of guilt by association.”

According to Boettcher, Derwinski reported that, when he was called before the grand jury investigating the incident, he refused to answer questions, citing the “speech and debate” clause of the Constitution, which grants members of Congress immunity from prosecution for certain activities in the course of their official duties.

Boettcher wrote also that the Departments of State, Justice and Defense and the CIA had stopped providing classified material to the subcommittee for six months because of the unresolved breach of security. This seriously impeded the panel’s inquiry into South Korean affairs, he said.

Grand jurors subsequently issued a sealed report that was given to the House Ethics Committee. When the committee concluded its inquiry in October, 1978, Rep. James H. Quillen (R-Tenn.) told the Associated Press that Derwinski was “completely cleared.”


But Chairman John J. Flynt Jr. (D-Ga.) said that “insufficient evidence” had prevented the committee from taking action. And Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), who headed the inquiry, told the Washington Post that “publication of the evidence (held by the intelligence community) would jeopardize intelligence sources and methods.”

Flynt died in 1985. Hamilton refused to discuss the case this week.