- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 7, 2002

SEOUL South Korean activists began a three-day demonstration in front of the Defense Ministry headquarters yesterday to protest what they see as U.S. pressure on Seoul to select Boeing's F-15K fighter jets over European competition.

The demonstrators, who carried placards that read "Opposed to purchasing of U.S. F-15Ks" and "Criticize the U.S.'s pressure on the decision-making procedure," requested an all-out reappraisal of the $3.2 billion project.

The U.S.-made fighters are competing with French company Dassault's Rafale jet, the Eurofighter consortium's Typhoon 2000 and the Russian Sukhoi Su-32 for the contract.

Anger erupted after Choi Dong-jin, deputy minister for defense acquisition, recently said the ministry was under U.S. pressure to give the deal to Boeing.

Compounding the controversy, a classified report leaked to local media said the French-built Rafale won the highest marks in the air force's initial field tests last year. The report also said the supply of F-15 parts would dry up after 2030, when the U.S. Air Force begins to retire the model.

The Korean ministry plans to select the winning bidder next month and seek parliamentary approval around April.

Defense Minister Kim Dong-shin, speaking before a parliamentary committee recently, denied U.S. pressure. "The ministry never influenced the evaluation of competing fighters, either," he said.

But that is exactly what is going on, said Richard Abulafia, a senior analyst at the Virginia-based Teal Group, an aerospace think tank.

Republican Sen. Christopher S. Bond and House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt, both from Missouri, and President Bush are reported to have discussed the project with the South Korean government, Mr. Abulafia said.

Boeing's F-15 manufacturing plant in St. Louis lies in the congressional districts of the two lawmakers. Both have traveled to South Korea to make the case for the F-15K (K for Korea), which is based on the U.S. Air Force F-15E fighter.

Korean opposition lawmakers say Mr. Bush might have lobbied for the F-15 when he met South Korean President Kim Dae-jung last month, in a bid to bolster the troubled military-aircraft business.

A spokesman for the Korean president, however, denied any discussion about arms sales during the Feb. 21 summit.

Boeing spokeswoman Jo Anne Davis said the F-15K "is the only aircraft in the competition that, with the first airplane delivered, can meet all the requirements set out by the Koreans" in air-to-air and air-to-ground capability.

The contract would be a plum for Boeing, which recently lost out when Lockheed Martin won the contract to build the new Joint Strike Fighter.

It also would be a feather in the cap for South Korea, as only three other nations Japan, Israel and Saudi Arabia have been permitted to buy variants of the F-15.

UPI Pentagon correspondent Pamela Hess contributed to this article.

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