The U.S. military command in South Korea voiced concerns this week that a Chinese telecommunications deal with South Korea could undermine the security of communications on the tense Korean peninsula.
Chris Bush, a spokesman for the U.S. Forces Korea said the command is concerned that a deal between China’s Huawei Technologies, Inc. and the South Korean company LG could undermine operational security.
“Telecommunications equipment is inherently vulnerable to a multitude of threats, from interception and monitoring to malicious software and applications, regardless of service provider,” Bush told the Washington Free Beacon when asked about security concerns related to the Huawei-LG deal.
The U.S. military and all service members “take care to protect personal information as well as essential secrecy,” he said in a statement.
A former senior Obama administration official said he is very concerned that the use of Huawei equipment in a nationwide telecommunications system on the peninsula ultimately will be used for espionage during both peacetime and sabotage in a conflict.
“Huawei is an arm of the Chinese government,” the former official said of the controversial equipment manufacturer that has been blocked several times from purchasing U.S. companies. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the evidence against Huawei.
Huawei was blocked from buying or sharing ownership with three U.S. telecommunications firms since the mid-2000s over U.S. intelligence concerns about the company’s links to the Chinese military and intelligence services.
Huawei equipment also was banned by Australia’s government and in Britain the company’s equipment is routinely checked for cyber spying capabilities.
During a House Armed Services Committee hearing April 2, Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti was asked about the Huawei deal and the risk to military communications security.
He declined to comment and said he was not familiar with the issue.
Rep. James Langevin (D., R.I.) raised the issue of the security of U.S. military communications as a result of the Huawei-LG deal with Scaparrotti.
“The intelligence committee on which I sit as well has done a deep dive on the Huawei issue and it is of great concern to us to the point that we have blocked Huawei from doing business here in the United States. But that is an ongoing and evolving concern that we have,” Langevin said.
Former CIA and National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden also warned of communications security risks from the deal.
“We continue to be concerned about the lack of transparency into Huawei's relationship with the Chinese government so a Huawei presence in ROK infrastructure is bound to raise American worries given how integrated our forces are with South Korean forces on the peninsula,” Hayden told the Free Beacon.
U.S. security officials have been pressing the White House to take a more assertive stance in opposing the Huawei-LG deal.
But the White House has remained reluctant for months to pressure South Korea’s government.
“I would not expect this issue to be raised on the president's trip,” a senior administration official said.
“While the United States has expressed concerns in the past, these decisions will be made by the Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea alone.”
Obama arrives in South Korea on Friday for a one-day stop as part of a four-nation regional trip.
A speech to U.S. troops is planned after a briefing from U.S. military officials. Tensions remain high amid reports that North Korea could seek to disrupt the visit by conducting its fourth underground nuclear test. South Korean government officials have said increased activity at the communist state’s nuclear test facility has been detected in recent days.
Obama is scheduled to meet with South Korean President Park Geun-hye and has said the trip is designed to bolster relations with a key U.S. ally in Asia.
U.S. intelligence officials have said the Chinese and North Korean militaries maintain close ties under a defense agreement.
Huawei equipment, including computer routers and other network electronics, is suspected of containing hidden “back doors” that allow remote access to telecommunications. With such access, an adversary in a time of crisis or conflict could carry out devastating cyber attacks to disable communications, or intercept them.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Mich.), whose panel has investigated Huawei, also warned of the dangers of the Huawei-LG deal.
"Allowing Huawei equipment into South Korea's advanced wireless network could create dangerous operational security vulnerabilities for the U.S. and South Korean military and government personnel who will inevitably use this network,” Rogers told the Free Beacon in February.
“This equipment could also pose a risk to the South Korean critical infrastructure we would depend on in the event of a crisis on the Korean peninsula or elsewhere in Northeast Asia,” Rogers said. “I have been working with my House colleagues to pressure the administration to address this important issue."
Early in February, Hayden, who has since retired as NSA director, traveled to South Korea and sought to convince the government there to block construction of the new network with Huawei gear.
The State Department has sought to play down the security concerns of military and intelligence officials toward the Huawei deal. A State Department official said in an effort to quell U.S. military concerns, the South Koreans announced they would use separate communications channels that will not be equipped with Huawei routers and switches in an effort to make them more secure.
However, U.S. security officials said the mitigation effort will not solve the problem.
In an effort to resolve the issue, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) recently pressed James Zumwalt, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, to take steps to better protect future U.S. military communications.
Another former administration official familiar with the issue said the proposed solution is not technically sufficient. “The political signal that they are sending by looking the other way on this is potentially undermining the integrity of the U.S. to communicate in Korea,” this former official said.
Scaparrotti said during the hearing that cyber warfare capabilities are among North Korea’s asymmetric threats.
“Theirs is not as advanced as some others globally, the challenges, but they have demonstrated the ability to do denial of service as well as disruption of web-faces, et cetera,” Scaparrotti said. “They had an impact on the South Korean banking and media industry here in the spring and summer of 2013, for example. And we know that they're working hard to develop a greater capability in cyber. Then also within our areas, as you know, China presents cyber challenges as well in the Pacific region.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee also has raised concerns about Huawei’s inroads in South Korea.
“The U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance is a cornerstone for U.S. strategic engagement in Asia, and has served as a bulwark against North Korean aggression for the past six decades,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a Nov. 27 letter to senior administration leaders.
“Maintaining the integrity of telecommunications infrastructure is critical to the operational effectiveness of this important security alliance.”
Huawei, for its part, has denied the cyber espionage charges. The Beijing government also defended Huawei following disclosures by renegade NSA contractor Edward Snowden that NSA spied on Huawei.
William Plummer, a Huawei spokesman, said in February that company’s equipment is proven and trusted gear and is “no more or less vulnerable to compromise than the gear of any and all of our competitors.”