WASHINGTON — The US and South Korea are embroiled in a tense political drama following the arrest in Washington of a Korean-American intelligence analyst charged with passing American secrets to South Korean officials.
The case is similar to that of Jonathan Pollard, a US intelligence analyst who sold thousands of pages of US secrets to Israel in the mid-1980s.
The US-Israeli relationship survived that trauma. And Asia experts say the US and South Korea will survive this one, most notably because both have a common enemy - North Korea.
But the episode comes at a sensitive time in relations between the two close allies. Seoul wasn't pleased with President Clinton's 1994 negotiations with North Korea over freezing nuclear weapons development.
The possibility of North Korea driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington has the South Korean government nervous.
Analysts suggest that might be why South Korean officials were so interested in obtaining US intelligence on east Asia.
"Maybe this case represents the view in Seoul that the US is not being as forthcoming as it should be," says David Shambaugh, director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University here.
Robert C. Kim was arrested on Sept. 24 on charges that he passed classified intelligence to an attach assigned to the South Korean Embassy in Washington.
The US-South Korean alliance dates to the Korean War and includes a current deployment of 37,000 American troops on Korean soil. As part of the alliance, South Korea is privy to many US intelligence assessments. But not all of the most sensitive intelligence produced by the US is provided to the Koreans, in order to protect sources and methods.
"If the Korean government wanted to get information that the US government is withholding, then the Korean government is taking the wrong approach," says Hyung Kook Kim, director of the Center for Asian Studies at American University here. He says maintaining the strong US-South Korean alliance is more important to Seoul than penetrating the US intelligence community.
Meanwhile, the matter is under investigation in both countries. The FBI is seeking to determine to what extent the spying operation may have been approved by higher officials in Seoul.
Spy suspect Kim allegedly provided Korean officials with US intelligence data relating to countries of the Asia-Pacific region, including North Korea. He also provided US assessments of South Korean leaders. Some of the data were classified at a level above top secret.
Although Kim has only been charged with the lesser crime of passing classified information to a foreign government, which carries a 10-year prison term, prosecutors say they are seeking to indict Kim on the more serious charge of espionage, which carries a potential life prison term.
Kim's attorney has argued that his client isn't a spy. He says Kim was trying to help the South Korean military purchase a new computer system from the US, and he was offering advice.
Aside from the possible effect on diplomatic relations, the Kim case also raises the issue of how the US can protect itself from being spied on by friendly nations.
Prosecutors say the best defense is to prosecute suspected spies and push for maximum prison terms. "The espionage statutes do not make a distinction between our allies and nonallies," says Joseph diGenova, a former government prosecutor. Mr. diGenova handled the Pollard case and sees striking similarities between the cases.
Pollard and his Israeli handlers believed that even if the scheme was discovered by US authorities, Pollard would face no significant penalties, because the classified information was going to a close US ally. They were wrong, diGenova says. Pollard received a life prison sentence.