None of these concerns surprises U.S. government officials who have worked Korea issues. The former government official who worked in Seoul but who would only speak on background said the South Koreans have an aggressive stance toward technology as they build their defense business. And while it's unclear if they are stealing American secrets, they'll do whatever is possible. "If they thought they would have a really good chance of getting away with it? Probably," the former official said. Unlike France or Israel, South Korea has never had a reputation like other American allies for being overly aggressive as an economic spy. But as its ambitions for its defense industry grow, experts who know South Korea note that Seoul has long had an appetite for American secrets. It paid former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst Robert Kim to slide the government critical intelligence in the late 1990s. Kim was caught and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1997. Such practice is a fact of life, the former U.S. government official said. "Friends spy on friends," the individual as much as shrugged.
In May 2011, Young Su Kim, a former vice president at a Colorado-based firm, Rocky Mountain Instrument Company, helped in the illegal export to South Korea of military technical data for prisms that are used in guidance or targeting systems in unmanned aerial vehicles, AC-130 gunships, tanks, and missile systems. He was sentenced to five years behind bars, according to data provided by the Department of Justice.
And in 2010, Juwhan Yun, a naturalized American citizen of Korean orgin was sentenced to 57 months in prison after pleading guilty to attempting to illegally export to South Korea components for a 20mm gun and a Russian fighter jet, RD-180 rocket propulsion systems, and other technology without the State Department's approval. He was arrested the year before in Florida and later indicted for attempting to purchase rocket materials for a company working on the Korean Satellite Launch Vehicle, according to the Justice Department. Yun had also been convicted in 1989 of conspiracy for violating the Arms Export Control Act in connection to exporting 500 quarter-ton bombs of sarin gas to Iran, none of which made it to its final destination, according to data provided by Justice.
Driven by its fears of aggression from the North -- as well as its strong desire to export its wares -- South Korea has never kept secret its ambitions to build an indigenous defense business. Seoul has marketed its defense products not only in Asia but in Europe and even the United States. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute ranks South Korea as 16th in arms exporters globally under the top six: the United States, Russia, Germany, France, China, and Britain.
"They are minor league," said Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "Medium league at best." But, Wezeman said, they are extremely active, marketing their defense products around the world. "They have big hopes for more arms sales, and if you believe them, they will be in a couple of years at the same level as Israel, Germany, and France," he said, adding the caveat: "It's probably a bit overly optimistic."
South Korea put itself on the map late last year when Norway made overtures toward South Korea to build a conventional submarine. Much of the technology upon which such a platform is based comes from the Germans. But the sub is an example of Korean innovation. Unlike the Japanese, who are seen in many ways as imitators, the Koreans are themselves more inventive, taking what they glean from other exporters and improving upon it.
"Don't underestimate the Koreans," Wezeman said. "They are quite capable of doing very advanced things themselves."
Many experts believe that South Korea uses the threat posed by North Korea to build its own defense industry -- and justify drawing American advanced technology closer. Within South Korea, the country sees itself as a developed ally of the United States, but as its defense industry inches its way onto the global stage, it feels increasingly entitled to obtain the best, most advanced technology available. That may be coming at the expense of the United States, which is viewed differently within Korea by different generations. The Korean War-era generation views the United States as a strong partner, the one that helped win the war and for whom loyalty is paramount. But a younger, more tech-savvy generation is growing up in a Korea that sees itself as, at least one day, a peer competitor.
At the same time, South Korea isn't completely sure of itself when it comes to operational control of forces on the Peninsula. Currently, the United States retains authority over all forces in South Korea. If there was a significant provocation from North Korea, for example, the U.S. commander in South Korea would assume control not only of his own 28,000-person force, but South Korea's as well. The United States for years has wanted to hand over operational control of those forces to its ally. But so far that hasn't worked. Efforts to formalize the transfer of control, in 2009 and again in 2012, never went through. Currently, that formal transfer is scheduled for 2015, but again, the South Koreans want to delay it.
Strategically, the South Koreans are still very much dependent on the United States. But when it comes to defense exports, the country is emerging as one ready to move out of the nest. And the United States is worried the student has access to too many of the teacher's lesson plans.
"Now they are on the level of where they can be competitive with us," says the former government official. "At what point does the student become the teacher?"