Korean and U.S. military officers earlier this year investigated suspicions by the U.S. government that Korea illegally disassembled F-15K fighter jet equipment for low-altitude night penetration attacks.
An official with the Defense Acquisition Program Administration on Monday said the chief of the U.S. Defense Technology Security Administration raised suspicions in a meeting with a senior DAPA official in early June that Korea illegally disassembled the Tiger Eye, a key component of the cutting-edge U.S.-made fighter jets.
The U.S. suspects this was done to steal the technology, since Korea is an aspiring player in the global arms market.
The Tiger Eye is a device installed under the F-15K's fuselage that helps the jet fly at a low altitude to avoid detection by enemy radar systems and launch precision attacks with precision-guided munitions at night and in bad weather. It consists of navigation systems and targeting pod devices.
The KF-16, which Korea procured before the F-15K, has a similar system called "LANTIRN." But Tiger Eye is much more advanced, and the U.S. is reluctant to transfer the technology. It therefore seals the box before it exports the device to other countries, and the contract stipulates that it cannot be disassembled.
But the U.S. said one box which the Air Force had sent to the U.S. for maintenance and repair showed evidence of the seal having been broken, illegally disassembled and put back together again, according to a source.
Korea has a history of disassembling U.S.-made weapons in the 1980s and using what it learned to develop its own weapons. But since the 1990s this has supposedly not happened again.
Korea and the U.S. conducted a weeklong joint investigation from Sept. 18 but failed to find proof that Korea had disassembled the Tiger Eye.
The DAPA official said, "The U.S. tentatively concluded that the Korean Air Force had not illegally mishandled the equipment."
A military officer said more such allegations could surface as Korea expands its arms market round the world.
The U.S. restricts Korean exports of weapons like the K-1 tanks which are made with U.S. technological support. Observers worry that the latest incident could lead to even tighter restrictions.
But the DAPA official said, "It doesn't seem likely that the U.S. will put restrictions on Korea's exports of military equipment."