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KOREA: Information ministry finances spy agency

Opposition party suggests that Ministry of Information and Communication's 46.6 billion won allocation to NIS may have funded agency's wiretapping activities

The Korea Times
Wednesday, August 17, 2005 

By Kim Tae-gyu

Seoul -- The Ministry of Information and Communication (MIC) has allocated a total of 46.6 billion won ($45.7 million) of its budget to the National Intelligence Service over the past five years.

The portion of the MIC’s budget used by the NIS has a "grandfather clause" that keeps the ministry in the dark about how it is used.

Still, the revelation triggers suspicions that the ministry’s funds might have been used to help the National Intelligence Service (NIS) develop equipment and technologies for wiretapping.

According to a MIC report to Rep. Suh Hae-suk of the governing Uri Party, the ministry has set aside the big budgets for the NIS and the affiliated National Security Research Institute (NSRI) over the past six years.

In the intelligence budget, 14.07 billion won was for the NIS, while 32.57 billion won went to the NSRI, which carries out research on security technologies.

The NIS and NSRI budget remained relatively consistent in the early 2000s at 5.68 billion won in 2000, 6.28 billion won in 2001 and 5.86 billion won in 2002.

But the amount soared abruptly after that, rising to 8.76 billion won in 2003, 10.16 billion won in 2004 and 9.92 billion won this year, up 74.6 percent from 2000.

During Wednesday’s parliamentary inspection on the ministry’s 2004 budget, lawmakers asked the ministry to disclose specifics of the spending.

But the information ministry refused to do so, saying that the contents of the budget cannot be disclosed to the public.

Under current law, only members of the Assembly Intelligence Committee are entitled to view details of the budget and they cannot reveal them to others.

Rep. Kim Hee-jung of the main opposition Grand National Party (GNP) raised the possibility that the resources could be used for developing wiretapping technologies or other similar purposes.

"Among last year’s NIS-related budget amounting to 2.42 billion won, 1.99 billion won was spent by the MIC spectrum division. This in particular arouses suspicion," she said.

Early this month, the NIS admitted it had illegally listened in on mobile phone conversations of business and political leaders during the early stages of the 1998-2003 Kim Dae-jung administration.

The admission touched off concern that cell phones, which the MIC claims are not vulnerable to eavesdropping, can be easily tapped just like fixed-line phones.

Following the NIS admission on bugging, Information-Communication Minister Chin Dae-je changed his stance slightly early this week, saying it is very difficult but possible for eavesdroppers to bug cell phone conversations.

In response, Rep. Park Geun-hye, chairwoman of the GNP, vowed to charge Chin with perjury for his past remarks in the Assembly that cell phones are safe from bugging.

During Wednesday’s session with lawmakers, however, Chin said he never changed his stance on cell phone tapping.

"My answers have been always that wiretapping on cell phones, while possible in theory, is implausible in reality with the nation’s current mobile phone network. I consistently said it is possible at least technologically," he argued.