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KOREA: Kim DJ administration bugged mobile phones

Former NIS director admits to wiretapping activities, including operations on cell phones, during former president Kim Dae-jung's administration

The Korea Times
Friday, August 5, 2005

By Jung Sung-ki

Seoul -- The state spy agency admitted yesterday it illegally eavesdropped on politicians and business leaders, even during the Kim Dae-jung government.

It also said that it conducted bugging operations on cellular phones, which the agency had previously denied and claimed was "technically impossible."

"I'm here to confess the illegal activity committed by our predecessor and seek the forgiveness of the people," said Kim Seung-kyu, director of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), in the agency's interim report at the headquarters in southern Seoul.

Kim said the intelligence service was found to have conducted illegal eavesdropping until March 2002. Kim Dae-jung was in office between February 1998 and February 2003.

During his tenure, Kim, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his work toward democracy and human rights, repeatedly voiced opposition to the illegal eavesdropping activities, which he saw as an infringement upon human rights.

The NIS last month launched an in-house investigation into the illegal surveillance of influential figures in the 1990s by a clandestine bugging unit, codenamed "Mirim," of its predecessor, the Agency for National Security Planning, during the Kim Young-sam government. A total of 43 people, including retired agents, have so far been questioned by the agency, Kim said.

The NIS previously claimed that Mirim was disbanded in 1998, when former president Kim Dae-jung took office.

According to the report, in 1991 the spy agency launched the bugging team led by Kong Un-yong, who is currently under investigation for the distribution of audiotapes, dubbed "X-Files," that allegedly contain conversations of high-profile figures, including presidential candidates.

The team was temporarily disbanded in July 1993, but re-organized in June 1994 to conduct bugging operations until November 1997. And the intelligence agency continued to conduct illegal wiretappings though the team was downsized, a NIS official said on condition of anonymity.

The NIS chief dismissed speculations on whether the Roh Moo-hyun administration also runs a bugging team, saying "The spy agency has not conducted an eavesdropping operation since March 2002."

"We do not need to carry out illegal wiretapping nor do we intend to do so," stressed Kim, who was inaugurated last month.

Chong Wa Dae also dismissed the speculation. "I can assert that there is no illegal eavesdropping, at least under the current government," said Moon Jae-in, a senior presidential secretary, in a briefing.

The NIS also acknowledged for the first time that it is technically possible to eavesdrop on mobile phone calls.

"It is possible to eavesdrop on calls between mobile and fixed-line phones," Kim said, adding that it is, however, impossible to intercept radio signals between cellular phone calls.

The NIS chief said he is ready to cooperate with the prosecution ongoing inquiry into the scandal, and said his agency is even willing to undergo a search by the prosecution if necessary.

The largest opposition Grand National Party (GNP) called for a parliamentary investigation of alleged eavesdropping activities of both previous governments and the current one to uncover the truth behind the scandals.

"We cannot be shocked and frustrated by the fact that the Kim Dae-jung government, what it called the people's government, recklessly eavesdropped on others," GNP vice spokesman Lee Jung-hyun said.

The GNP plans to submit to the National Assembly a bill aimed at naming a special counsel to investigate the case in cooperation with other opposition parties.

The ruling Uri Party echoed the need to thoroughly investigate the wiretapping scandal but shifted the blame to the spy agency's "wrongdoings."

"Former president Kim Dae-jung was the victim suffered the most from the spy agency's illegal surveillance while he led pro-democracy movements during the previous authoritarian regimes," said Rep. Bae Ki-sun, secretary-general of the ruling party.

"Eavesdropping cannot be justified as it is unlawful and anti-humanitarian," he said.

CDMA calls vulnerable to eavesdropping

By Kim Tae-gyu

Seoul --Is bugging a digital mobile phone possible? The question is currently vexing experts after the country’s spy agency admitted that it had overheard mobile phone calls in the late 1990s.

After purchasing four bugging devices from Italy in 1996, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) said it operated the gear until 1999, when the country stopped using the analog format.

It corresponds with the experts’ consensus that analog phones were prone to bugging because they send and receive voices without encrypting them.

However, the NIS upset experts by saying that it had attempted to carry out mobile surveillance even after Korea introduced the digital wireless system of code division multiple access (CDMA).

Industry experts claimed that digital handsets are dramatically less vulnerable to bugging compared to analog models since the former encrypts all phone calls or messages into computer bits.

The NIS said it tried to overhear mobile calls conducted with digital handsets by two methods - intercepting radio waves carried from and to cell phones and bugging fixed-line segments between base stations.

"We developed six devices in 1998 to bug mobile phones’ landline connections but their usage was limited because we could only bug 120 lines out of Seoul’s tens of thousands of lines," a NIS official said.

"In Dec. 1999, we built 20 eavesdropping devices that can be carried inside an automobile to intercept radio waves, which were transmitted from the cell phones of bugging targets to base stations."

He said the car tried to track the bugging target at a distance of less than 200 meters to continue capturing the radio waves.

He added, however, that the NIS shelved the mobile gear in 2000 as it was not very efficient and the nation’s mobile operators adopted more advanced technology in 2000 called CDMA 2000.

"The equipment has various limitations. In addition, we failed to catch up with the development of the mobile technology for CDMA 2000. So starting in late 2000, we did not use the bugging gear and destroyed it in March 2002," the official claimed.

Even though the NIS insisted it stopped bugging mobile phones in 2000 and never resumed such unlawful activities, suspicions still remain about whether or not the mobile surveillance is possible or is still being conducted today.

Prof. Lee Hyuck-jae at Information and Communication University, who has said mobile eavesdropping is impossible, changed his stance.

"If the NIS could eavesdrop on mobile phones in any fashion several years ago, I think it would certainly have such an ability at the moment," Lee said.

By contrast, the Ministry of Information and Communication still argues that mobile bugging is impractical.

"We still believe eavesdropping on today’s digital cell phones is not just theoretically possible but is almost impossible in reality. We understand the NIS has tried to bug cell phones but failed to find an efficient way," MIC director Yang Jung-hwan said.

To enable mobile calls, networks and facilities of both fixed-line data relay devices and wireless air interface are necessary.

When a person makes a call on a CDMA cell phone, the voice is digitized and encoded to be sent to the nearest base station, which then tosses it to another base station adjacent to the recipient’s via the mobile carrier’s switch operators.

Between base stations, the transmission of voice data is conducted on landlines exactly like that of fixed-line phone calls. In Korea, there are about 23,000 base stations across the nation.