Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Seoul Hotel Break-In Has Makings of a Spy Novel
By Mark McDonald
Police officials are investigating a mysterious break-in at the five-star Lotte Hotel, an odd bit of cloak and dagger in Room 1961 whose storyline includes bumbling spies caught red-handed, negotiations for a supersonic jet fighter, a stolen laptop and a conveniently timed meeting with the president of South Korea.
Accounts from the police, local news media, government officials and hotel employees laid out a whodunit tale of the break-in, which took place last Wednesday when visiting Indonesian government and military officials left their rooms at the Lotte for a late-morning meeting with President Lee Myung-bak.
The Indonesians went to the Blue House, the presidential residence and offices, to discuss the purchase of military jets from the government-backed Korea Aerospace Industries. (The Korean plane, the T-50 Golden Eagle, is an advanced jet trainer that can be upgraded to a fighter-bomber. It is being considered for purchase by the Indonesians, who are also considering a subsonic Russian plane, the Yak-130.)
The Indonesians, traveling with their own security personnel, left their rooms unguarded, with their work computers and private documents inside, the police and Indonesian officials said later. The Indonesian group comprised as many as 50 people, reports said, including Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro.
Soon after the Indonesians left their rooms, two men and a woman went up to the 19th floor and entered Room 1961, the police said. Inside were two laptops.
One version of the events, first reported by the newspaper Chosun Ilbo, said that the woman was there when an Indonesian aide returned to the room — his room — and surprised her. She said she had entered the room by mistake, then quickly left.
According to another account, the Indonesian man had interrupted the woman while she was downloading files from a laptop into a small U.S.B. drive.
Meanwhile, the men whom the police have described as her accomplices were discovered in a stairwell with a laptop that did not belong to them. It had been taken from Room 1961, and the Indonesian aide had reported the theft to the hotel. Minutes later, when a hotel employee confronted the men in the stairwell, they handed over the laptop and fled.
Subsequent reports in the press and from the police have implicated the National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s principal spy agency. Chosun Ilbo said the intelligence service’s agents had been seeking information on the jet deal and other possible military sales.
The police precinct commander, Seo Beom-kyu, said Monday that a spy agency investigator appeared at the Namdaemun police station at 3:40 on the morning after the break-in, asking to speak to the chief of detectives overseeing the case. It was not immediately clear what the agent was seeking.
A spokesman for the spy agency declined on Monday to comment on the matter. The Blue House also declined to comment.
“Even if it turns out it was the N.I.S., there wouldn’t be any real benefit in punishing them, now, would there?” said the national police chief, Cho Hyun-oh. “If the N.I.S. did it, it was for our own national interests.”
A spokesman for the Indonesian Defense Ministry, Brig. Gen. Wayan Midhio, denied Monday evening that a military laptop or secret data had been stolen. He said a staff aide to the coordinating minister for economic affairs, Hatta Rajasa, had his laptop taken by another hotel guest. The guest, the general said, had entered the staff member’s room by mistake, thinking it was the guest’s own room. Then the guest took the laptop, thinking it was his or her own.
General Wayan said the room was being cleaned when the incident took place. “Because the room was open,” he said, “the person thought it was their room. But as soon as they saw the laptop wasn’t theirs they returned it to the receptionist.”
The general said no one in the Indonesian delegation was carrying secret military information. “The laptop did not belong to the Defense Ministry,” he said.
A South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said Monday that Jakarta had asked for an official inquiry. The spokesman, Cho Byung-jae, said, “We agreed to inform them as soon as we are done.” ◦
Posted by ProfAHK at 9:36 AM