Chinese Envoy Gave N. Korea Data to South, Officials Say

Li Bin was China's special envoy for the Koreas.
Li Bin was China's special envoy for the Koreas. (By Ahn Young-joon -- Associated Press)

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By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 13, 2007

BEIJING, Sept. 12 -- For years, Ambassador Li Bin was China's go-to diplomat for the tense Korean Peninsula. After studies in North Korea, Li had served several tours in the Chinese embassies in Pyongyang and Seoul. Fluent in Korean and gregarious in nature, he also struck up an unusually personal relationship with Kim Jong Il, the secretive North Korean leader.

It turns out, according to knowledgeable Chinese officials, that Li was also a resource for the South Koreans, who exploited his insider knowledge about Kim and the closed-door North Korean government. During a tour as China's ambassador to Seoul from 2001 to 2005, the officials said, Li regularly provided the South Koreans with information on Kim, the North and China-North Korea relations.

Li's willingness to talk got him arrested in Beijing late last year for betraying state secrets, officials said, but the exact nature of Li's alleged transgressions remained opaque. Now, after months of interrogation, his case is being treated at the Foreign and State Security ministries as a major breach. It is believed to be the most damaging state secrets case in China since 1994, when an army general was discovered to be a spy for Taiwan.

Allegations of wrongdoing by Li first surfaced in February when South Korean media reported that he was under investigation for speaking with a journalist and leaking news of an impending visit to China by Kim. During that visit, as news outlets in most of the world reported that Kim was in Beijing, China's government-controlled reporters kept silent, gagged by Chinese officials at the request of the security-obsessed North Korean leader.

But the Beijing-based South Korean journalist who was said to have benefited from the leak and broke the story, Park Ki Sung, wrote on a blog earlier this year that Li was not his source. The tip came from a businessman in Dandong who saw Kim's train cross the Yalu River border and head for Beijing, Park explained.

In any case, the Chinese officials said, interrogators have discovered that Li's disclosures went far beyond leaks to a journalist. They included a sustained supply of information on Chinese and North Korean diplomatic exchanges, the officials said, as well as gleanings from Li's personal contacts with Kim. These tidbits were current, they added, because Li had served as Kim's escort and interpreter during recent visits to China and again had a chance to observe the North Korean leader up close.

Li's leaks were provided to U.S. as well as South Korean officials, the Chinese sources said. But it was unclear whether they meant Li dealt with U.S. officials or whether the information passed to South Korean officials was relayed as part of an arrangement between the closely allied U.S. and South Korean intelligence establishments.

Li also was in position to provide information on six-party negotiations led by China designed to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. In addition to China and North Korea, the talks include South Korea, the United States, Russia and Japan.

After his return to Beijing in August 2005, Li was named the Foreign Ministry's special envoy for the Korean Peninsula, making him a point man in the six-party negotiations. During his time in that post, he gained a reputation among diplomats from other countries in the talks as a friendly and outgoing colleague, square-jawed and younger-looking than his actual age, 51.

But nine months later, Li was suddenly transferred out of the Foreign Ministry and assigned to serve as deputy mayor of Weihai, a medium-size city 380 miles southeast of Beijing on the Yellow Sea.

Such assignments are not unusual in the Chinese system, designed to broaden the experience of officials destined to rise in the party hierarchy. Four months after arriving in Weihai, however, Li was reported to be back in Beijing and under interrogation for leaking state secrets.

Some reports said he was quartered at a foreign affairs think tank through this spring, others that he was at some point put into full-time police custody. Asked about his fate, the Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that Li no longer is associated with the ministry and its officials have no idea where he is. The government has made no announcement about the case.

In Seoul, Li earned a reputation as an extraordinarily accessible diplomat who spoke freely in South Korean society at all levels. Acquaintances said he showed a particular fondness for late-night drinking parties -- a South Korean custom -- and regularly downed what Seoul night owls call "bomb shots," or whisky mixed with beer.

One acquaintance, who like the others spoke on condition of anonymity, said Li's language skills allowed him to bypass the ethnic Chinese community in South Korea and establish his own contacts. This led to feuding with the leadership of South Korea's Chinese associations, he said, and may have resulted in negative reports to Beijing about Li's freewheeling ways.

Several people who knew Li during his years in Seoul expressed doubt that he would take money for information, saying he had a promising future in the Communist Party and thus had little motive to enter into an overt relationship with South Korean intelligence.

"His problem was that he loved drinking too much," said another observer who knew Li in Seoul. "And when you drink too much, you make mistakes. You become a blabbermouth."

Special correspondent Stella Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.

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