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Furor over leak of Moon’s May 7 phone chat with Trump

May 24,2019
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Khang Hyo-shang
The main opposition party Thursday criticized the Moon Jae-in administration for combing through telecommunication records of public servants to find the person who leaked a sensitive phone conversation between President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this month.

On May 9, Rep. Khang Hyo-shang of the Liberty Korea Party (LKP) hosted a press conference and made public a detailed description of the two leaders’ conversation, including Moon’s repeated invitation to Trump to visit Korea.

Following Khang’s revelation, the government conducted an investigation into the leak and identified a Korean diplomat in Washington as a suspect, JTBC reported Wednesday night. Later in the day, a government source told the media that a 54-year-old diplomat at the Korean Embassy in the United States was suspected of having leaked the confidential information to Khang.

“It was a kind of whistle-blowing to reveal this administration’s humiliating diplomacy,” said Rep. Na Kyung-won, floor leader for the LKP, Thursday. “I think the people have the right to know what the leaders of the two countries discussed.”

The phone conversation between Moon and Trump took place on May 7 for 35 minutes, following North Korea’s firing of a volley of short-range missiles on May 4. Following the call, the Blue House and the White House issued statements to summarize the discussion, which differed significantly, stirring controversy.

“After [the diplomat] accessed the record of the contents of the two leaders’ phone conversation at the Korean Embassy in Washington,” the government source said, “he told Khang about the details through KakaoTalk Messenger text and voice chats.”

After having the contact with the diplomat, Khang held the press conference at the National Assembly in the afternoon of May 9. Khang and the diplomat went to the same high school in Daegu, according to the government source. “Based on the information offered by sources in the U.S. government and diplomats at home and abroad, the U.S. government sent a signal that Trump has no plan to visit Korea anytime soon,” Khang said during the press conference. “Moon, then, asked Trump to visit Korea, for however short a period, after his trip to Japan in late May.”

Trump is scheduled to visit Japan as the first foreign guest of newly-enthroned Emperor Naruhito from May 25 to 28. He is also scheduled to visit Japan again in June to attend a Group of 20 Summit. Khang said the U.S. president replied that he was willing to briefly stop in Korea after his visit to Japan. Trump reportedly said it may be possible to meet with Moon in front of U.S. Forces Korea.

Khang said the Blue House was trying to arrange a summit with Trump in late May to send a signal to North Korea and demonstrate the steadiness of the Korea-U.S. alliance. “Moon also turned down a proposed trip by National Security Adviser John Bolton,” Khang said at the time.

Following Khang’s press conference, the Blue House reacted furiously. Presidential spokeswoman Ko Min-jung said his assertions were incorrect and he must be held accountable for his irresponsible, groundless claims that offended diplomatic courtesy.

The Blue House and the White House announced last week that Trump will visit Korea in June to discuss North Korea and other issues between Seoul and Washington. Trump will visit Korea for a summit with Moon in late June as a part of a trip to attend the G-20 Summit, Ko said. The summit is scheduled in Osaka from June 28 to 29.

It was rare for Seoul and Washington to announce a summit plan weeks in advance, although the specific dates were not fixed.

In the meantime, the Blue House and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs jointly conducted an investigation to comb through telecommunications records of Foreign Ministry officials to identify the leaker, despite the initial denial.

Following the intense scrutiny, the diplomat admitted that he had accessed the record of the phone conversation in question, according to the government and Blue House sources.

The Blue House is currently reviewing a plan for disciplinary action against the diplomat, as well as a possible criminal charge against him. Contents of a phone conversation between state leaders are classified as Level-3 confidential records in Korea. More sensitive information is classified as Level-1 or Level-2 secrets. Level-1 secrets would pose a fatal threat to national security if exposed.

Khang said Thursday that he cannot reveal his source and the source he quoted for the press conference was not the diplomat in question.

“I held the press conference for the sake of the people,” said Khang. “I wonder if it is justifiable for this administration to look into the mobile phones of public servants for this kind of issue.”

He said the Blue House was trying to threaten officials and gag public servants and opposition politicians. “It is retaliation against me for being critical of this administration’s incompetent diplomacy,” he said. “It is an obstruction of a lawmaker’s legislative activity.”

“Presidential spokeswoman Ko called me an irresponsible liar,” he said. “She threatened an opposition lawmaker for making public a supposedly groundless claim. “The Blue House has now admitted that its briefing was a lie to deceive the people,” he continued. “The Blue House must apologize to me and the people.”

Rep. Na, the LKP floor leader, also said the Blue House was oppressing public servants with the investigation into the leak. She said Moon “begged” for a summit with Trump.

The Blue House refuted the LKP’s claim that it was oppressing public servants with the investigation. “They argued that the suspect was a whistle-blower, but whistle-blowing is revealing malpractice or corruption within an organization,” a senior presidential aide said Thursday. “The two leaders’ phone conversation can’t be construed as malpractice or corruption. So the LKP argument is nonsense.”

The official also said the investigation of the Foreign Ministry officials’ telecommunications records was done legitimately. “We investigated their mobile phones with their consent, so it is not illegal,” she said.

The official, however, refused to confirm if any of Khang’s claims during the May 9 press conference was true or not. “The two leaders’ conversation is a Level-3 secret, so if I try to verify it, I will be leaking, too,” she said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Khang continued to disclose other sensitive information on Thursday. “During the U.S.-North summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, President Trump demanded that the North shut down five nuclear facilities, but North Korean leader Kim Jong-un responded that he would only shut down two,” Khang said. “So the talks broke down.

“According to my source in Washington, two of the five facilities are in Yongbyon and another is in Kangson,” he said. “I will reveal later where the other two are located.”

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]