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Contractor's Arrest for Espionage Confuses Seoul-American Relations

By Kevin Sullivan
The Washington Post
TOKYO

U.S. officials in Seoul said Thursday they were puzzled over the case of an American businessman arrested on espionage charges by South Korea.

Donald Ratcliffe, 62, an executive of a subsidiary of defense contractor Litton Industries Inc., was arrested Wednesday and charged with obtaining classified military documents related to South Korea's plans to purchase Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes.

"There doesn't seem to be any reason why he would be interested in that," said a U.S. official. He said Litton has a "near monopoly" on sales of navigational control and guidance systems for South Korean military aircraft.

"If they're enjoying that kind of a good business climate in South Korea, you wouldn't think they would need classified documents," the official said, noting that AWACS "wouldn't even be a major part of their business here."

The case is also unusual because Washington and Seoul are close military allies, sharing a wide range of military intelligence and equipment.

In a development reported by the Associated Press from Seoul, South Korea's defense ministry announced Thursday that its general in charge of procuring weapons, Maj. Gen. Lee Poong Kil, has lost his job for failing to prevent the leaking of information.

Seoul's plans to spend billions of dollars in the next few years to beef up its aircraft, missile defense systems and other military hardware are commonly known. American military contractors do a lucrative business in South Korea and stand to benefit from Seoul's increased military spending.

A Litton spokesman said the company was not aware of any illegal activity by Ratcliffe, a retired military officer who has worked for Litton for 20 years.

U.S. officials here said Ratcliffe has spent 18 years working for Litton in East Asia and currently is based in the Bangkok office of Litton Guidance and Controls Systems.

Officials from the South Korean military and the Agency for National Security Planning, the domestic intelligence service, were questioning Ratcliffe at an undisclosed location Thursday.

Some U.S. officials have said that the government's military purchasing plans might not necessarily be classified information in the United States. But that is what the South Korean government has charged Ratcliffe with obtaining, and he could face the death penalty if convicted of espionage.

South Korean media reports have said that security officials will question Ratcliffe about whether he handed over any military secrets to the U.S. government. U.S. officials deny that the U.S. government was involved in any espionage laid to Ratcliffe.