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Army officer brought N.K. nuke site soil to South: reports

After 1999 mission, N.K. abducted Lt. Col. Jeong, then released him in deal

A South Korean Army intelligence officer infiltrated areas near North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex and brought samples of soil and water there to the South in 1999 for the government to assess its nuclear activities, news reports said Monday.

Later, the lieutenant colonel, identified only by his surname Jeong, was abducted into the North after being seduced by a North Korean female agent in China. He was then released in the early 2000s thanks to under-the-table contacts, they said.

Jeong of the Defense Intelligence Command, who sources say is still in active duty and is soon to retire, may have handed over military secrets to the communist state while in captivity there, the reports said.

Citing government sources, they also pointed out that he was not reprimanded for that as the radiation-contaminated samples gave critical information on the North’s nuclear development. He was rather given an order of military merit, according to the reports.

Seoul’s Ministry of National Defense said that the reports were untrue.

“I talked to intelligence officials here. They said the reports are not the truth. I am sorry that I cannot tell you about whether he was abducted or not,” ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told reporters in a press briefing.

In a court hearing May 19 for a 57-year-old man indicted on charges of handing over military operation plans to the North, a former reporter testified that four senior South Korean military officers were abducted by the North in 1999. But only Jeong was held captive by the North that year, the Chosun Ilbo said.

According to the daily, Jeong also brought soil samples here from a testing site for high explosives in Gusong, North Pyongan Province. The testing of high explosives is a prerequisite in the development of plutonium-based nuclear bombs, experts said.

Experts say that even a small amount of soil from the nuclear site would shed light on North Korea’s nuclear programs.

In the early 1990s, the North reported to the international community that it extracted only 80 grams of plutonium after reprocessing spent fuel rods from Yongbyon nuclear reactors only once.

But after analyzing the soil there, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency found that the North reprocessed the rods three times to produce a considerable amount of fissile material possibly measurable by the kilogram.

The two Koreas are known to have engaged in fierce espionage activities near the border between the North and China in the 1990s.

Some observers say that the National Intelligence Service and the military intelligence agency helped key North Korean figures defect to the South and gather information on the reclusive state.

Seoul’s intelligence authorities are known to have been involved in the process to facilitate the defection of senior North Korean officials including former secretary of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party Hwang Jang-yop and former North Korean ambassador to Egypt Jang Seung-gil.

Espionage activities against each other have continued since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce rather than a formal peace treaty. North Korea has sent a number of spies ― some under the disguise of North Korean defectors ― to the South.

By Song Sang-ho (