By Hyung-jin Kim
The Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea has arrested one of its citizens on spy charges, alleging that he worked with rival North Korea’s military to kidnap defectors from the repressive, impoverished country and the activists who helped them flee, an official said last Monday.
The 55-year-old, who was taken into custody Thursday while on a visit to South Korea, purportedly worked with a female North Korean agent to shuttle those kidnapped — both the defectors and activists — to the North, where experts say they could face severe punishment, such as forced labor and years in prison. He accepted drugs from Pyongyang to fund his operations, according to the Yonhap news agency.
Prosecution spokesman Oh Se-in confirmed the man’s arrest, saying he allegedly violated the National Security Law, which carries a maximum sentence of death. The suspect denied the charges, Oh said.
The arrest is a window into the people-smuggling that occurs along the North Korean-Chinese border, where most of those escaping hunger and political oppression cross. More than 18,000 people are thought to have fled North Korea since a 1953 truce ended the Korean war and split the peninsula. With the two Koreas divided by a heavily fortified no-go zone, China offers a key land route out of the North.
But Beijing has a policy of repatriating defectors, and so activists say tens of thousands of North Koreans live in hiding in China while waiting to travel to South Korea, the United States, or other countries, where they can apply for refugee status. South Korea, in principle, accepts all North Korean defectors if they want to resettle in the South.
An undisclosed number of South Korean activists and missionaries secretly operate in China, sheltering and feeding defectors before helping them to their next destination.
The man arrested last week — whom the official only identified by his surname, Kim — is believed to have been trafficking drugs in China’s eastern Shandong province when in 1999, he met the female North Korean agent working for a spy organ affiliated with the North’s People’s Army. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
The mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo reported that Kim and the 51-year-old woman lived together in China, but it’s not clear if they were romantically involved, posing as a couple, or merely living in the same house.
Kim allegedly traveled to Pyongyang in 2000 for 15 days of spy training and received $10,000 and 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) of narcotics from the North, the official said.
He was then sent back to China, where he began abducting defectors and activists who were helping them, the official said. In one case, the man is believed to have kidnapped and repatriated a middle-aged North Korean defector to the northeastern North Korean city of Chongjin in 2006, he added.
Neither the official or Oh, the prosecution spokesman, would say how many activists and defectors the man has allegedly kidnapped.
He is also accused of trying to gather information on South Korean intelligence officers operating in Chinese towns near North Korea, the official said. Yonhap, citing the prosecution, said the man is believed to have failed to obtain the information the North wanted.
The two Koreas remain in a state of war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. For decades after the conflict, both countries sent agents across the heavily fortified border to infiltrate the rival. But in recent years, both are believed to be focusing on less risky intelligence-gathering activities, such as information from the Internet and satellite photos.
The South Korean daily, Munhwa Ilbo, said the man returned to the South recently to avoid Chinese investigation of his drug trafficking. ♦