WASHINGTON – A South Korean embassy official who met with John Kerry (search) fund-raisers to talk about creating a political group for Korean-Americans was in fact a spy for his country, raising concerns among U.S. officials that he or Seoul may have tried to influence the fall presidential election.
South Korean and U.S. officials told The Associated Press that Chung Byung-Man (search), a consular officer in Los Angeles, worked for South Korea's National Intelligence Service at the time he was meeting with Kerry fund-raisers.
A spokesman for the South Korean consulate office said Chung was sent home in May amid "speculation" he became involved with the Kerry campaign and Democratic Party through contacts with fund-raiser Rick Yi (search) and that his identity couldn't be discussed further.
"According to international tradition, we cannot identify, we cannot say who he is, because he is intelligence people," spokesman Min Ryu said.
The State Department said it has discussed Chung's reported activities with the South Korean government and has no reason to doubt Seoul's representations he was an intelligence agent.
The department believes Chung's contacts with donors and fund-raisers, if accurately described in reports, were "inconsistent" with the 1963 Vienna Convention that prohibits visiting foreign officials from interfering in the internal politics and affairs of host countries, a spokesman for its legal affairs office said.
Kerry campaign spokesman Chad Clanton said the campaign did not know Chung was an intelligence agent or that Yi, one of the campaign's key fund-raisers in the Asian-American community, was meeting with him until it was brought to light by the AP.
The AP first reported this spring that Yi and other Kerry fund-raisers and donors had met with Chung, but at the time Chung was only identified as a diplomat. Yi resigned from the Kerry campaign after the AP story appeared, and Kerry returned $4,000 in donations he had solicited because of concerns about their origins.
Democratic donors and fund-raisers who said they were uncomfortable with the activities alerted the AP to the meetings and Chung's identity as an intelligence agent.
A South Korean government official in Seoul and two longtime U.S. officials in Washington, both speaking on condition of anonymity because Chung's intelligence work is classified, told the AP that Chung worked for South Korea's NIS, the country's CIA equivalent.
The U.S. officials said Chung had registered with the Justice Department as a friendly foreign intelligence agent on U.S. soil, and that his activities had raised concern he or his government had tried to influence the fall presidential election through "extracurricular activities."
The FBI has not begun a formal counterintelligence investigation because Chung left the United States in May, the officials said.
The NIS dismissed any suggestion the South Korean government tried to influence American politics as a "totally groundless rumor and all fiction."
South Korea has been frustrated over the deadlock in talks on North Korea's nuclear activities, while at the same facing the Bush administration's planned withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops from the tense region. One expert said Chung's actions were consistent with Seoul's concerns with the Bush administration even if he didn't get a direct order.
"It is certainly possible that these actions would not reflect an order from the top but rather point to the unaccountability of a rather high-ranking officer to pursue their own agenda or what they perceive to be the agenda of their superiors," said Nicholas Eberstadt, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute.
"But, nonetheless, this sort of intervention certainly provides a faithful reflection of the general attitude of Roh Moo-hyun's administration toward the presidential race," Eberstadt said. "There's an awful lot of people in this (South Korean) government who can't stand the Bush administration and would love to see Bush lose."
South Korean officials said Yi and Chung had known each other for some time. Before moving to Los Angeles, Chung worked in South Korea's consular offices in Atlanta, where Yi was working for a high-tech company.
Yi had worked in the Clinton White House as a military attache, and eventually went into business in the Atlanta area with the son of disgraced former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan. Yi began raising money for Kerry in 2003 and raised about $500,000 for Democratic causes.
Yi told the AP that he met with Chung at least three times in California to discuss starting a political action group for Korean-Americans. "He contacted me to ask me to help him set up a Korean-American Leadership Council," Yi said, adding he turned down the offer because he was too busy.
Before the discussions with Chung in California, Yi had started a Korean-American political group in the Atlanta area called the Pacific Democratic Alliance, according to incorporation papers filed in March 2002 with the state of Georgia.
South Korean officials said Yi asked Chung to help introduce him to Korean-Americans in California as Yi began fund-raising in the state. Chung made some personal introductions but never directly solicited political donations, Ryu said.
Kee Whan Ha, president of the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles and a donor to both Kerry and Republican candidates, said it was common knowledge within the community that Chung worked for intelligence.