Korea ponders extent of NSA domestic snooping

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Korea ponders extent of NSA domestic snooping

Concerns continue to mount across the globe about whether the U.S. National Security Agency is spying on friends and foes alike. Korea is starting to ask out loud how much of its government and society is under U.S. surveillance, including the Blue House.

A Korean intelligence source told the JoongAng Ilbo Wednesday that “a considerable portion of the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency or other U.S. intelligence watchdogs in Seoul are shrouded in a veil.”

But the main maxim among the local intelligence community is that the CIA watches North Korea, while the NSA watches Seoul. Key intelligence sources say that the NSA has footholds in the U.S. Embassy in Gwanghwamun and the Yongsan Army base in central Seoul.

Both areas have extraterritorial status.

And while the CIA is known to share its information on North Korea with Seoul - at least, partly - the NSA’s activities are shrouded in total secrecy. Korean spies jokingly refer to it as “No Such Agency” for its lack of give and take.

The source said the main U.S. spy bases in Korea were “CC Seoul,” an underground command post on the Yongsan base, and “FOB-K,” or the Field Operating Base-Korea of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Other U.S. military posts include “Tango,” south of Seoul, and are known to have wiretapping capabilities through electronic equipment.

“There are around 30 NSA agents employed in the U.S. Embassy or disguised as officials in U.S. Forces Korea,” the intelligence source said. “To put this into perspective, the CIA has around 15 official agents deployed here.”

Citing a 2007 NSA document, the New York Times recently reported that the U.S. spies on both allies and enemies routinely, and of 33 targeted countries, allies such as Korea and Japan were included. Even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was a target.

The 2007 secret NSA document procured from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and disclosed by the New York Times on Nov. 4 indicated that Korea was one target of NSA operations focusing on foreign policy, intelligence and counterintelligence.

The document indicated that the surveillance spanned a period from at least the end of the Roh Moo-hyun administration in 2007 and into the succeeding Lee Myung-bak administration.

The newspaper also reported that the NSA took advantage of overseas bases in countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan and Korea to collect intelligence.

The report showed that the NSA used U.S. Forces Korea bases and its embassy and consulates in Korea as intelligence sources.

The Korean government has requested an explanation from Washington through diplomatic sources.

The NSA was also accused of spying on 35 country leaders last month and tapping 38 embassies in the U.S., including the Korean Embassy.

There has been no explanation from Washington, said Cho Tai-young spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday.

There are some suspicions that some of the equipment meant to spy on North Korea under Task Force 777 of the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command in Seongnam, Gyeonggi, is used to spy on the South instead.

The intelligence source said, “Most of the equipment is shared by South Korea and the U.S., but there is some equipment and areas that the U.S. never reveals.”

Another government official said, “It’s our territory, but you can see it as the reality that the U.S. holds that much power.”

Thus, it is difficult for Korea to demand explanations.

Another government source who works in security tasks said, “When a leader of a country is under surveillance, the topic of most interest is how the leaders of the country react in times of accident or emergency.”

In the case of Korea, it is of most importance to find out the movements and reactions of the president, key Blue House officials, the defense minister and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when they deal with U.S.-related or military-related issues.

The source said the ability of U.S. surveillance “is beyond our imaginations.”

It’s to the point where three years ago, during the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010, U.S. spies could hear the North Korean army’s emergency communications through its equipment at Task Force 777 in Seongnam, Gyeonggi.

BY LEE JEONG-JONG, SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]
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