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Federal Magistrate in South Korea Frees Alleged Spy amid Objections

By Robert L. Jackson
Los Angeles Times

In a move rarely taken in espionage cases, a federal magistrate Monday ordered accused South Korean spy Robert C. Kim released on $200,000 bond over objections from government prosecutors that the Navy civilian employee could flee the country before trial.

Magistrate W. Curtis Sewell said that Kim, 56, who was arrested last week, was charged with an offense that "could have serious consequences" and that "the weight of evidence against him is substantial."

But Sewell noted that Kim, who became a U.S. citizen in 1974, had no previous offenses and was not carrying any "false or fraudulent identification" that would suggest he planned to flee. Kim must surrender his passport and that of his wife, restrict his travel to the metropolitan Washington area and report regularly to a court officer, Sewell said.

He ordered that Kim remain in custody for two more days to give prosecutors a chance to appeal his bond ruling, the first such release order in memory in a major spy case. Justice Department spokesman John K. Russell said that an appeal would be filed. Officials said that more serious charges against Kim may be sought shortly from a federal grand jury.

Kim, an analyst with the Office of Naval Intelligence, was seized by FBI agents at a diplomatic reception last Wednesday and charged with passing more than 50 documents to a naval attache at the South Korean Embassy in Washington. The documents bore markings that ranged from "classified" to "top secret."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Chesnut told Sewell that Kim posed a risk of flight "because many other countries will not extradite defendants on espionage charges."

"All he has to do is cross the border into Canada," Chesnut said. He added that South Korea, where Kim has relatives and "a variety of contacts with government officials," might offer him a safe haven.

Kim, who immigrated here from his native Seoul, had access to classified records dating back to 1979, when he obtained a job with the naval intelligence office. Authorities said that he was observed passing data to his Korean contact since being placed under FBI surveillance last May but they have not said how long his alleged spying is thought to have lasted.