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U.S. envoy warns Seoul of Huawei blowback

June 19,2019
U.S. Ambassador to Korea Harry Harris told the Blue House in a meeting on June 7 that Washington would have to withhold sensitive information from Korea if it continues to use telecoms equipment from the Chinese communications giant Huawei.

A high-level diplomatic source told the JoongAng Ilbo last Friday that Harris discussed potential security compromises presented by 5G communications equipment supplied by Huawei with Chung Eui-yong, the Blue House National Security Office chief.

During the meeting, according to the source, Harris stressed the importance of a “good communication channel” between Korea and the United States, implying that the channel would suffer if Huawei-supplied equipment was used in parts of Korea’s 5G cellular network.

The ambassador’s words to the Blue House represented a direct warning by Washington to Korea in relation to Huawei, part of the United States’ international campaign to persuade allies not to use communication networks that could be used to supply sensitive information to the Chinese government.

The remarks are at odds with the Blue House’s own position on alleged threats posed by Huawei, which a top presidential official earlier this month downplayed when he said the company’s partnership with Korean telecoms giant LG U+ had “no impact” on military and security communication channels in Korea.

Harris himself rebutted the Blue House official’s words in an interview with the Chosun Ilbo, saying he disagreed with the remarks and that Huawei was “at risk of facing uncontrollable pressure from foreign governments.” He went on to say Washington would have to re-evaluate information sharing deals with its allies if the latter do not heed its warnings.

Huawei currently supplies equipment to LG U+’s commercial 5G network, accounting for around 95 percent of its 15,000 5G base stations across Korea, according to LG U+.

In spite of mounting pressure from the United States, Korea’s Foreign Ministry last week took a step back from the Huawei controversy, saying the government would continue to respect corporate autonomy.

On Tuesday, a Foreign Ministry official told reporters that the agenda for the ministry’s upcoming talks on economic cooperation with Beijing on Wednesday does not include the Huawei issue. If Chinese officials bring up their opinions on Korea’s 5G network, the ministry will explain that the choice of what equipment to use was entirely up to private companies and that the Korean government would continue its efforts to strengthen security measures in relation to 5G, the official said.

In a visit to the National Assembly on Saturday, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy, Rob Rapson, doubled down pressure on Seoul, telling the legislature’s foreign affairs committee chairman, Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun, that Huawei equipment could harm the military security of the alliance, particularly in communications.

Yoon later told the JoongAng Ilbo that the U.S. Embassy was discussing the Huawei issue with various government agencies in Korea separately, ranging from the Blue House, Foreign Ministry, National Intelligence Service and the Ministry of Science and ICT. The Science and ICT Ministry in particular, Yoon added, was preparing to sign a memorandum of understanding with the United States over intelligence sharing.

As the U.S.-China trade war grinds on, analysts say Korea is set to face mounting pressure from both sides.

A decision by Seoul to side with Washington on the Huawei ban could invite economic retaliation from China similar to the backlash for its deployment of the U.S.-led terminal high altitude area (Thaad) defense antimissile system in 2015. But ignoring U.S. demands could lead Washington to withhold intelligence from Korea.

BY SUNG JI-WON, LIM SUNG-BIN and SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]