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Ministry wants leaking envoy, rep. prosecuted

May 29,2019
Seoul’s Foreign Affairs Ministry will file criminal complaints against a diplomat at the Korean Embassy in Washington and a lawmaker from the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) for leaking a phone conversation between U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in early this month.

The ministry said Tuesday in a statement that the decision was reached Monday by an internal committee that discusses security breaches at the Foreign Ministry. That committee also asked a disciplinary panel within the ministry to hand down a “severe penalty” on the diplomat, which, at worst, could mean expulsion from Korea’s foreign service.

Two other diplomats from the embassy in Washington who failed to protect confidential information from being leaked will also be referred to a disciplinary panel and a similarly severe penalty was recommended, the ministry continued. They, however, won’t be subject to a criminal complaint.

A meeting of the disciplinary panel to discuss two out of the three diplomats, including the person who leaked the presidents’ conversation to the LKP lawmaker, is scheduled for Thursday morning, meaning their fate could be decided as early as tomorrow.

A different disciplinary panel that falls under the Prime Minister’s Office will review whether to hand down a severe penalty to the third diplomat, who is classified as a “high-level” diplomat, which, in the case of the Foreign Ministry, normally includes ambassadors, ministers and director generals.

The ministry did not mention on Tuesday when the disciplinary panel meeting for the high-level diplomat will be held. Neither did it reveal any of the diplomats’ ranks or names. On the LKP lawmaker who leaked the conversation to the press, the ministry said it would ask prosecutors to press criminal charges against him because he “directly provided the cause” of the leak, without explaining further.

The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office already launched a probe into the LKP lawmaker, Rep. Khang Hyo-shang, on Monday after the ruling Democratic Party (DP) filed a criminal complaint against him last Friday on allegations he leaked diplomatic secrets. A complaint from the Foreign Ministry will likely add urgency to the investigation.

The diplomat who leaked the conversation to Khang admitted the transgression through a statement issued by his lawyer yesterday but said he had no clue Khang would release it to the press.

Khang and the diplomat went to the same high school in Daegu and the same university in Seoul.

Through his lawyer, the diplomat, who identified himself as a councilor, said he met Khang “one or two times” at a welcoming party for freshmen during college and at a high school alumni party, also during his college days. But after graduating from university, the diplomat said he never contacted Khang for over 30 years until February 2019, when he “naturally” met Khang, who was visiting the United States with a group of other Korean lawmakers. The diplomat, who at the time was covering work related to the U.S. Congress, said he dined with Khang once when the lawmaker later visited Washington, and exchanged calls “several times.”

On May 8 at around 11:30 a.m., Washington time, the diplomat said he received a call from Khang, who asked whether it was true Trump didn’t oppose the South Korean government’s plan to provide North Korea food aid, as the Blue House announced to the press while briefing reporters about a phone call between the presidents on May 7.

According to the diplomat’s lawyer, Khang asked the diplomat to check whether Trump really didn’t oppose the food aid plan if he had the transcript of the May 7 conversation. The diplomat replied he would check the transcript, and after he did, realized the Blue House wasn’t lying and told Khang so.

Khang, according to the diplomat, started talking about a possible visit by Trump to Seoul in May and expressed strong doubt it would happen.

“The councilor thought President Trump’s speedy visit to Korea would help the Korea-U.S. alliance and believed his visit was a diplomatic achievement everyone wanted to fulfill, so when Rep. Khang Hyo-shang spoke negatively about Trump’s visit, he wanted to correct him,” the diplomat’s lawyer explained.

So the diplomat told Khang there was a higher chance of Trump visiting Korea in May than him not visiting, said the lawyer, which led to Khang asking for “information that could teach him the direction of the results of the phone call.” Khang insisted he would keep the information to himself.

The diplomat ended up telling Khang some expressions shared by Moon and Trump from the phone chat, the lawyer continued, which eventually were leaked to the press by the lawmaker.

The lawyer said the diplomat thought it was part of his job to deliver concrete information about the Foreign Ministry’s policies to a lawmaker in order to raise his or her level of policy understanding.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]