Prisoner in U.S. sets his sights on returning to his homelandRobert Kim, 64, a Korean-American who’s been in a U.S. prison on espionage charges since 1996, was moved Saturday from Allenwood Federal Prison Camp in Pennsylvania to a regional prison in Winchester, Virginia, near his family home.
This move on the part of prison officials allows him to serve out the last six months of his sentence near family.
“I don’t want Koreans to bear anti-U.S. sentiment for me,” said Mr. Kim, whose full name is Kim Chae-gon. “In the early days in jail, I had many sleepless nights due to my resentment and disappointment toward the U.S. and South Korean governments. But my feelings are much softened now.”
On Jan. 24, a JoongAng Ilbo reporter visited Allenwood prison to interview Mr. Kim, but prison officials prevented anyone but family members from meeting him. Instead, his wife, Chang Myung-hee, asked him questions on behalf of the reporter.
Q.How do you feel, with only six months left before your release?
A.As my release is coming, I am more fearful these days. I am worried about how I can survive and develop a normal social life after seven years in jail. I’ve heard that a long-term prisoner’s anxiety about returning to society can cause serious illness and even death.
What do you expect in Winchester prison after the transfer?
Long-term prisoners who transfer are supposed to have some work duties. I’m expecting to work in places like apple farms outside the prison. It is part of preparing to adapt to society after release. They will deduct a quarter of our pay for lodging and food. Prisoners that are steady, honest and aren’t troublemakers get a chance to operate electrical tools and go outside prison to be with their family.
Do you have anything to say to your family?
As the eldest son in my family, I didn’t have enough time to be responsible for them. I want to ask my father to forgive me for that. It is painful to think about my father, who has been confined to a hospital bed since August 2000, when he suffered a stroke after visiting me in the U.S., and now has Alzheimer’s disease. If I get out of here, I will do my best to oversee my father, as well as my wife, who has suffered for me for so long. She has driven between home and prison at least twice a week to support me.
Do you have any words for the South Korean government?
China’s government is always eager to help Chinese Americans. How can the governments of China and Korea be so different? I want the Korean government to not forget its people who’ve immigrated to other countries, like me. When the government doesn’t really care a bit about them, how can they develop any loyalty and patriotic sentiment toward their homeland?
What do you want from the South Korean government?
I hope the South Korean government can help me to lift the bars of three years’ probation. If they fail, I have to wait until July 2007 to go back to Korea.
What are your plans after release?
As soon as possible, I would travel to South Korea and spend the rest of my life devoted to social services. Korean youth unqualifiedly imitate and admire American culture. I would love to help change that. If the economic situation permits, I want to teach business education to young people.
What were the reasons for your passing American documents to South Korea?
The information that I passed to South Korea was not a serious blow [to security]. But it became serious because it was information that the U.S. and its allies shared. I didn’t know that it would leap to this unexpected ending. If we think of South Korea as a U.S. ally, the government should speak to the U.S. government officially and openly.
What if you return to your previous situation?
If I knew that my government would be so weak, I would not do it again. I’d rather close my eyes and block my ears and keep serving as a good U.S. citizen for the United States. Life is short; why should I suffer from these troubles?” email@example.com
Background: The Case of Robert Kim
A Korean-American, Robert Kim was suspected of handling over copies of classified documents to then-South Korean Navy Colonel Baek Dong-il, who worked as a naval attache of the South Korean Embassy in Washington.
In September 1996, a North Korean submarine passed the northern limit line in the East Sea (Sea of Japan), and according to some reports, Mr. Baek asked Mr. Kim to get information on North Korean submarine routes, which he accepted. Six days after the North’s attack, the FBI arrested Mr. Kim.
The FBI accused him of treason, of betrayal, of crimes for his country. He was charged with using a computer system at the Office of Naval Information to gather information on computer maritime tracking systems, which included classified reports about North Korea, China and other Asian countries.
U.S. prosecutors alleged that he had passed the documents to Korea so his native country would buy a multi-million dollar computer system from his brother’s company.
Lawyers for Robert Kim sought a reduced sentence, arguing that the classified documents contained nothing harmful to America’s national defense and the information was supposed to be shared between the U.S. and Korean governments. Mr. Kim was sentenced to nine years in prison plus three years’ probation, later reduced to seven years.
A Rapid Ascent, a Sudden Descent
Robert Kim was born in Yeosu, South Jeolla province, and graduated from Hanyang University in engineering.
In 1966, he began studying at Purdue University in Indiana and married shortly after. In 1970, he joined NASA, the U.S. space agency, and in 1974, he became a U.S. citizen and began working for the Mitre Corp., a security-related nonprofit.
Four years later, Mr. Kim moved to the Office of Naval Intelligence as a civilian computer expert. At the time, Mr. Kim was the only Asian among 1,200 employees.
In Sept. 1996, the FBI arrested him on espionage charges. His father, Kim Sang-young, was a two-term lawmaker as well as a vice-governor of the Bank of Korea and a president of the Federation of Korean Industries.
by Kim Dong-seop