South Korean lawmakers have called for the government to enact tougher laws on preventing leaks of defence secrets after Indonesian engineers were allegedly caught attempting to take a removable drive containing data related to the KF-21 fighter jet.
The Defence Acquisition Programme Administration (DAPA) said the technicians, working on the project at Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), were under investigation on suspicion of saving the classified information on a USB device.
“A joint investigation composed of related agencies, including the National Intelligence Service, is currently under way to look into the circumstances of the Indonesians’ alleged technology theft,” a DAPA official said.
The probe would also focus on whether the stolen data contained sensitive technologies related to the KF-21 development programme, started in 2015. The Indonesians are currently banned from leaving South Korea over the incident that came to light last month.
Lawmaker Hong Suk-joon of the ruling People Power Party said the laws on safeguarding military know-how require an “intent to be used in a foreign country” to be proved for a leak to be punished in court.
He urged fellow legislators to help close the loopholes by passing related bills pending before the National Assembly since 2020.
Indonesia, a partner country of the fighter jet project, maintained it was committed to the plan after failing to fund 20 per cent of the initiative’s cost of 8.8 trillion won (US$6.5 billion).
An official at Indonesia’s defence ministry said Jakarta has earmarked US$79.6 million this year to cover its share.
The Southeast Asian nation is estimated to have paid 278.3 billion won for the planes expected to roll off the production line in the coming months, Yonhap news agency reported.
Indonesia’s state-owned aircraft manufacturer PTDI, which has partnered KAI on the project, said the country’s foreign ministry would address the alleged data theft allegations.
The KF-21 fighter jet made its public debut last year at a Seoul defence exhibition with a demonstration flight.
The South Korean air force plans to deploy 120 units of the KF-21 by 2032 to replace its ageing fleet of F-4 and F-5 fighters, as well as the country’s fourth-generation F-16s and F-15Ks.
With the cost of each jet somewhere between US$80 million and US$100 million, South Korea, which is seeking to become the world’s fourth-largest arms exporter, hopes the model could emerge as a cost-effective alternative to Chinese warplanes in markets including Asia and the Middle East.