South Korea Says It May Be Terrorist Target

Times Staff Writer

A number of agents connected to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network have visited South Korea to scout potential U.S. targets for attack, officials here said.

One of the more worrisome instances involved a Pakistani who arrived from Manila earlier this year and has since left South Korea, said Hahm Seung Hee, a member of the National Assembly’s intelligence committee.

Hahm cited a classified intelligence report that was presented to the committee this week by the National Intelligence Service. He said the agency also suspected that one or two South Koreans might have assisted the suspected terrorists.


“Our feeling is that these terror groups moved from the Middle East into western Asia and Southeast Asia and now into eastern Asia,” Hahm said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “We have to strengthen security at our ports and [take] other counter-terrorist measures.”

He said another suspect believed to be connected with an Indonesian terrorist cell tried to enter South Korea this year but was turned back at the airport because of faulty travel documents. However, the man was believed to have had better luck operating in Japan, Hahm said.

Kim Sung Soon, another assemblyman, said South Korea’s decision to send 3,000 troops to join the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq could be a motivation for potential terrorists.

“Al Qaeda is a threat to all countries, not just the United States. They are indiscriminate in their targeting,” Kim said.

A spokesman for the National Intelligence Service refused to comment on the incidents, saying the report given to the National Assembly was not supposed to have been disclosed.

Reports last month in the South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo said one of the suspected Al Qaeda operatives who had worked here was arrested in a third country and was in U.S. custody. According to the reports, the CIA had provided South Korean intelligence with information about his activities.

The U.S. Embassy had no comment. However, a U.S. official said in a recent interview that the potential for an Al Qaeda attack in South Korea was relatively low because of the country’s rigorous internal security, honed by decades of tensions with communist North Korea.

About 37,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea. Security at American facilities was further tightened after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and again this year with the onset of the war in Iraq.

Diplomats here said the intelligence service had been keeping close tabs on tens of thousands of foreign workers and students in South Korea from Muslim countries, many of whom worship at a mosque in Seoul in the same neighborhood of bars and shops catering to American soldiers.

Al Qaeda’s interest in South Korea apparently dates to the late 1990s. Shortly after the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, an African terrorist thought to be connected with the attack spent six months living and working in South Korea and casing the country for a potential attack, said Hahm, the intelligence committee member.