It was a case of a little friendly spying among allies.
In 1996, U.S. naval intelligence analyst Robert Kim was arrested for handing over classified documents to South Korea, the country of his birth. After serving seven years of a nine-year prison term for espionage, he was released last week to confinement in his home in Ashburn, Va. But considerable bitterness about the case remains for many South Koreans, who believe that the United States and their own government treated Kim unfairly.
After Kim’s release, bullhorn-toting backers launched a fund-raising campaign on his behalf in the streets of Seoul. The 64-year-old Kim has an Internet fan club, and prayer meetings have been held to support him. South Korean newspapers have run editorials in the last few days extolling his courage.
“The nation owes Robert Kim for giving up his personal safety and career to help his fatherland,” editorialized the English-language Korea Herald on Friday.
The reaction to the case reflects the often-ambivalent emotions of South Koreans, even political conservatives, toward the United States.
“Many Koreans, myself included, believe that America is our closest ally, but there are times that the United States has shown arrogance and hurt Korean pride,” said Lee Woong Jin, a 38-year-old businessman who heads a support group for Kim.
Kim’s defenders hope to raise money to pay off his debts and are petitioning the U.S. government to change the terms of his probation so he can visit South Korea to attend the funeral of his mother, who died last week of a stroke just three days after Kim’s release from prison.
Kim’s case is often compared to that of Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who is serving a life sentence for spying for Israel. But his supporters complain that South Korea, unlike Israel, was too intimidated by the U.S. to stand up for Kim.
“Behind the scenes, I think they tried to help ... but compared to the Israeli government, the Korean government was relatively passive,” said Kim’s younger brother, Kim Song Gon. The younger Kim is an assemblyman with South Korea’s ruling party. Their late father also served in the National Assembly.
Robert Kim, a naturalized U.S. citizen who moved to the United States in 1967 to attend graduate school, was working as a civilian intelligence analyst for the Navy in 1996 when the FBI arrested him. It charged he had photocopied more than 30 classified military documents and given them to a military attache with the South Korean Embassy. Many of the documents dealt with the threat posed by communist North Korea.
Faced with overwhelming evidence of his guilt -- the FBI had installed a hidden camera in his office three months before his arrest -- Kim pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to gather national defense information. But he was apparently stunned by the severity of the sentence imposed by a federal judge.
In a telephone interview from his home in Ashburn, Kim said he believed he had received an especially harsh sentence because he was foreign born.
“I knew that I violated the rules as a government worker, but no, I did not think it was espionage,” Kim said. “I love my adopted country.”
But in another interview, published last week in a South Korean newspaper, Kim said that he considered himself a Korean above all.
“When the FBI agent asked me why I did such a thing for Korea, I said I would definitely cheer for Korea when Korea goes against the United States in a soccer match.... I do not feel sorry for what I did,” Kim was quoted as saying in Thursday’s editions of Chosun Ilbo.
South Koreans who know Kim said he was naive about the implications of what he was doing. Many of the documents in question were sent by U.S. mail with his return address on the envelope, while others were sent on an office fax.
“I was trying to find out about the true intentions of North Korea, which was our enemy,” said Baek Dong Il, the military attache who received the illegal documents. “The United States and South Korea had a relationship that was often compared to that of blood brothers. It never crossed our minds that exchanging information [about North Korea] was spying or espionage.”
Baek was demoted after Kim’s arrest and returned to South Korea.
For many South Koreans, it is easy to identify with the personal history of somebody who immigrated to the U.S. but never shed loyalty to his homeland.
“This is the tragedy of a proud Korean who sacrificed everything for his country,” said Park Chang Hyun, a businessman who was plunking money into a collection box last week.
At the time of his arrest, the FBI alleged that Kim hoped to land a South Korean government contract for his younger brother in exchange for the secret documents, but those allegations were never proved.
Choi Jae Han, 24, an office worker who was collecting money for Kim last week, denied any ulterior motive. “He was simply a true patriot,” he said.