BEIJING - An investigation of leaked United States diplomatic cables
surrounding the planned sale of US surveillance drones to South Korea reveals
that Washington has exerted considerable diplomatic pressure to smooth the
deal, even as media were reporting the Pentagon was reluctant over the sale.
South Korean media reported this week that Seoul was mulling the cancelation of
a deal to purchase by 2015 four RQ-4 Global Hawks - a high-altitude endurance
remotely piloted unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) - after Washington more than
doubled the initial asking price from 450 billion (US$385 million) won to 940
Using Global Hawks over the Korean Peninsula would provide an unprecedented
view of goings-on in reclusive North Korea. The
plane has the capacity to view targets at a distance of some 550 kilometers,
meaning the drones could peer deep into the Hermit Kingdom without even
crossing the inter-Korean border.
Formally unveiled in 1997, the UAV has an operations range of 3,000 km, and can
stay flying for 36 at 20 kilometers above the ground. With its high-tech
optical camera, it can identify objects 30 centimeters in diameter on the
It has been widely believed and reported that the South Koreans have been
trying for years to purchase the drones, with the Pentagon stalling over fears
of technology leaks.
South Korea's military authorities initially requested the US sell it four
Global Hawks in 2005. "South Korea requested this several times. However, last
June, the US put up a 'not for sale' sign and rejected Korea's requests," the
Dong-A Ilbo newspaper reported on July 13, 2006.
"The government and military have aggressively pushed to buy the Global Hawk
since 2005," the Chosun Ilbo newspaper wrote on September 28 this year.
United States concerns in 2005 reportedly centered around leaks of confidential
information to the North, reflecting a lack of trust between Washington and
Seoul at the time. South Korea was then led by president Roh Moo-hyun, who was
seen as leaning closer to China and as being somewhat aloof towards traditional
ally the US. Some pundits characterized him as a "leftist".
More recently, media have said the US was concerned about technology transfer.
"Until now, the US has refused to sell the Global Hawk, citing its Missile
Technology Control Regime, which bans the sale of missiles with a range of 300
km or more and a payload of at least 500 kg as well as unmanned reconnaissance
drones," Chosun Ilbo reported on September 28.
However, WikiLeaks diplomatic cables paint a very different picture, with Seoul
the reluctant suitor and the US exerting incessant diplomatic pressure on its
Asian ally to complete the deal.
After being rejected by the US in 2006 in its bid to buy four Global Hawks,
South Korea resorted to developing its own indigenous UAV and awarded a
contract to Korea Aerospace Industries Ltd and an unidentified foreign defense
The WikiLeaks cables reveal the US Embassy in Seoul was working at the
forefront of a Global Hawks sales effort. The drones are manufactured by US
defense giant Northrop Grumman, which has significant lobbying power in
A diplomatic cable dated December 3, 2007, and classified as "confidential" by
then-US ambassador Alexander Vershbow, opened as its summary statement: "It is
Post's assessment that the Republic of Korea's acquisition of the Global Hawk
system is essential to US interests and to the maintenance of the ROK-US
alliance in the years ahead."
Contradicting media reports that the US was concerned about security breaches,
it said: "Like the NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization]-plus Nations,
Korea is a close ally that can be trusted with this technology."
A cable dated March 25, 2008, written by ambassador Vershbow to US Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton, shows that current South Korean President Lee Myung-bak
himself was also lukewarm over purchasing Global Hawks.
of National Defense] has sensed a storm brewing since [former] defense minister
Lee Sang-hee met with President Lee on March 12. At that meeting, an aide to
President Lee told the defense minister very bluntly that there would be budget
cuts and to plan accordingly. The aide curtly warned the defense minister that
the Blue House [presidential office] would not be "writing checks for MND
toys". President Lee reportedly said nothing, but kept looking straight ahead,
indicating that he agreed with everything his aide was saying.
then suggested the US secretary of state, "discuss with FM Yu [former foreign
minister Yu Myung-hwan] the negative effect these deep cuts could have on
congress' already flagging support for the alliance".
An April 28 cable of the same year revealed that the first sentence David
Sedney, the US deputy assistant secretary of defense, uttered in his meeting
with defense officials in a closed-door meeting in Seoul was to express
"serious US concerns" over South Korea's decision not to purchase Global Hawks.
Sedney also demanded the officials explain what plans the South had if it
didn't have an immediate plan to buy the drones.
The US Embassy in Seoul even identified the members of Lee's administration who
most strongly opposed the purchase, naming Lee's national security adviser Kim
Byung-kook as one, according to a May 30, 2008 cable.
US Embassy cables on September 24 and October 15 in 2009 once again emphasized
the need to press the Global Hawks sales issue, as James Steinberg, former
deputy secretary of state and former defense secretary Robert Gates were
visiting the country.
It appears the US government wanted all along to sell the drones, even in 2007
when Roh was president. While South Korean media outlets were depicting Seoul
as eagerly chasing the deal and Washington as being stubborn on technology
transfer, quite the opposite was happening.
As of today, the multi-year negotiation is still underway. The South Korean
negotiation team went to the US in June and met with Northrop Grumman and US
Defense Department officials. "The US said two things that South Korea didn't
hear before," said Kim Jong-dae, a frequent TV commentator on North Korea who
heads the military magazine D&D Focus, in Seoul. "One is that it requires a
separate ground base to fly Global Hawks. Secondly, the US has such a base in
Guam in Asia-Pacific region and doesn't want to have a base in South Korea."
According to the September 12, 2011, edition of the US military newspaper the
Stars and Stripes, the US is "is negotiating with South Korea to fly the RQ-4
Global Hawk surveillance drone near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)", instead of
selling them to South Korea directly. The first Global Hawk arrived on Guam
late last year and three are now flying in the Asia-Pacific theater, the
The most thorny issue is the pricing. South Korea is also considering Global
Observer, a cheaper and similar airplane developed by US firm AeroVironment
Inc. Seoul is also testing the Peace Eye, an early warning and control aircraft
made by Boeing, to monitor North Korea. The first Peace Eye aircraft was
delivered to Gimhae Air Base, near Busan, for testing on August 1.
"The price for Global Hawks is even too burdensome for the US military. And
there is a possibility that it could go up further. So, I don't see any deal
being signed between Seoul and Washington any time soon," said Kim.
The US has said the hike was due to reduced demand for the Global Hawk in the
wake of defense cuts. However, military officers have told South Korean media
that they suspect Washington quoted an inflated price since it knows South
Korea needs reconnaissance drones.
South Korea generals are concerned the absence of drones will become a serious
loophole in reconnaissance capabilities after the US forces' planned handover
"Will the public and the National Assembly accept it if we buy the
reconnaissance drones by spending far more than we can afford, no matter how
important the bilateral alliance is and how essential the Global Hawks are for
our preparations to take over full operational control?" a military source
asked in Chosun Ilbo.
Sunny Lee ([email protected]) is a Seoul-born columnist
and journalist; he has degrees from the US and China.
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