Two Indonesians under investigation for alleged theft of Korean fighter aircraft technology

By Dain Oh, The Readable
Mar. 18, 2024 9:48PM GMT+9

South Korean police conducted a search and seizure operation targeting two Indonesian technicians suspected of attempting to steal the country’s advanced fighter aircraft technology, a project that required a substantial investment of $6 billion to develop.

On March 15, investigators from the Gyeongnam Provincial Police conducted a raid on the headquarters of Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) in Sacheon, a city within South Gyeongsang Province. During the operation, they seized computers belonging to the Indonesian suspects, in addition to having confiscated their mobile phones from their residences the previous day.

KAI specializes in producing military aircraft that are crucial to the national defense strategy, including the supersonic fighter jet KF-21. Although technically a private entity, the South Korean government is its largest shareholder, giving KAI the characteristics of a public organization.

The two Indonesian individuals, sent as trainees to KAI’s headquarters as part of a bilateral partnership between South Korean and Indonesian organizations, were allegedly caught attempting to smuggle out several unauthorized USB flash drives. These drives were said to contain extensive information related to the development of the KF-21 fighter jet, with the incident occurring on January 17.

Following the interception of the Indonesians’ attempt to smuggle out data at KAI’s security checkpoint two months ago, a South Korean joint investigation team was assembled. This team included members from the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) and the National Intelligence Service (NIS). The investigation was escalated on February 21, when the National Office of Investigation, an agency with the authority to conduct forceful investigations under national security laws, took over the probe.

In 2016, Indonesia entered into an agreement with South Korea on the KF-21 project, committing to cover 20% of the total development costs for the fighter jet alongside its counterpart. In return, Indonesia was to receive one prototype aircraft and the rights to manufacture 48 fighter jets for its own Air Force domestically. However, Indonesia has so far delayed the payment of its committed share to the South Korean partners, which, according to multiple sources, amounted to approximately $750 million as of October of last year.

While it remains unconfirmed whether the data on the flash drives constitutes military secrets, the incident has jeopardized the cooperation between Indonesia and South Korea. This has led to skepticism among South Korean defense officials regarding the Indonesian partners’ commitment to fulfilling their promises. The partnership’s future has been described as “more uncertain” by a local news outlet, especially after Prabowo Subianto, Indonesia’s President-elect, declared a halt on payments for joint development projects during his tenure as defense minister in 2019.

The suspects are currently prohibited from leaving the country due to the ongoing investigation.

The cover image of this article was designed by Daeun Lee. This article was copyedited by Arthur Gregory Willers.

Dain Oh is a distinguished journalist based in South Korea, recognized for her exceptional contributions to the field. As the founder and editor-in-chief of The Readable, she has demonstrated her expertise in leading media outlets to success. Prior to establishing The Readable, Dain was a journalist for The Electronic Times, a prestigious IT newspaper in Korea. During her tenure, she extensively covered the cybersecurity industry, delivering groundbreaking reports. Her work included exclusive stories, such as the revelation of incident response information sharing by the National Intelligence Service. These accomplishments led to her receiving the Journalist of the Year Award in 2021 by the Korea Institute of Information Security and Cryptology, a well-deserved accolade bestowed upon her through a unanimous decision. Dain has been invited to speak at several global conferences, including the APEC Women in STEM Principles and Actions, which was funded by the U.S. State Department. Additionally, she is an active member of the Asian American Journalists Association, further exhibiting her commitment to journalism.