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Prosecution probes rep. over leaked phone call

May 28,2019
The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office said Monday it has opened an investigation into an opposition lawmaker who is accused of revealing diplomatic secrets from a recent phone conservation between President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump.

The prosecution said it assigned the case to its public security team.

The ruling Democratic Party (DP) asked the prosecution on Friday to open a criminal investigation against Rep. Khang Hyo-shang of the Liberty Korea Party (LKP). The ruling party said Khang violated the law that bars the disclosure of diplomatic secrets.

The government was embarrassed after Khang hosted a press conference on May 9 and revealed a detailed description of a May 7 phone conversation between Moon and Trump. Following the disclosure, the Blue House and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs conducted an investigation and identified a diplomat at the Korean Embassy in Washington as the person who leaked the confidential information.

Phone conversations 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 are those that would pose a fatal threat to national security if exposed.

According to Article 113 of the Criminal Act, “a person who divulges diplomatic secrets shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than five years or by a fine not exceeding 10 million won [$8,438].”

The law also says that a person who searches for or collects diplomatic secrets for the purpose of divulging them can also face the same punishment. It remains to be seen if Khang’s action is protected by lawmakers’ immunity.

“No member of the National Assembly shall be held responsible outside the National Assembly for opinions officially expressed or votes cast in the Assembly,” Article 45 of the Constitution says.

The LKP and Khang argue that his press conference was part of his duty as a lawmaker to offer information to the people. The DP, however, said it is an act that cannot be protected by immunity.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also began a disciplinary process against the diplomat.

“Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha hosted an urgent meeting of top ministry officials late last night and decided to host the security check meeting and disciplinary hearing,” Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young said Monday morning.

The 52-year-old diplomat, a minister counselor of the Korean Embassy in the United States, arrived in Seoul on Sunday.

The ministry held the meeting to review his alleged security breach on Monday. A disciplinary hearing will follow on Thursday to decide on punishment. Taking into consideration the gravity of the situation, speculation grew that the diplomat would face dismissal from his post or expulsion from the ministry.

“Because the case is a serious violation of the regulations governing confidential information, we decided to hold the security breach review committee first,” Cho said.

Internal reviews on security protocol breaches rarely take place, indicating the ministry’s determination to punish the diplomat severely.

The Blue House earlier warned that it will file a criminal charge against the diplomat for leaking a diplomatic secret.

This is not the first time that a diplomat will face punishment for leaking a state secret. In 2006, Rep. Choi Jae-cheon of the then-ruling Uri Party, the predecessor of the DP, revealed the Blue House’s National Security Council meeting minutes on the strategic flexibility of the U.S. Forces Korea. At the time, Lee Jong-heon, a Foreign Ministry official dispatched to the Blue House, was identified as the leaker.

He was punished with a three-month suspension and returned to his diplomatic career. He is currently serving as secretary general of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat of Korea, Japan and China.

President Moon was the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs of the Roh Moo-hyun Blue House in 2006, and he headed the inspection at the time.

Meanwhile, speculation grew inside the ministry that Foreign Minister Kang may take responsibility for the latest security breach.

When she met with journalists in Paris last week, Kang admitted that the incident “made me think that I am lacking leadership.”

Throughout this year, the ministry has been criticized over a series of embarrassing mistakes. In April, it came under fire for displaying a wrinkled Taegukgi (Korean flag) during strategic talks with Spain, leading to the official in charge being dismissed from his post.

Other mistakes made by the ministry included the incorrect description of the three Baltic states - Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia - as “Balkan” in an English press release posted on its official website in March. It was only corrected after the Latvian Embassy in Seoul complained.

Also in March, President Moon Jae-in used an Indonesian greeting during a joint press conference with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, leading to criticism of his protocol team for failing to prepare him properly.

As Kang stressed in April that “not one mistake can be afforded in diplomatic affairs,” the latest leak is considered a serious blow to her leadership.

BY SER MYO-JA, LEE YU-JUNG [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]