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S. Korean detained in Russia for alleged espionage is missionary

By Ji Da-gyum

Published : March 12, 2024 - 17:53

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A wall of Lefortovo Prison in Moscow (SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)) A wall of Lefortovo Prison in Moscow (SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images))

A South Korean citizen who Russian authorities claim has been detained on charges of espionage since earlier this year is a Christian missionary focused on aiding North Korean people in Russia's Far East region, according to sources on Tuesday.

The South Korean individual, first reported by Russia's state-run media outlet TASS as Baek Won-soon and later corrected as Baek Kwang-soon, had been actively involved in missionary efforts for North Koreans in Vladivostok, according to databases belonging to the two organizations with which he is associated in South Korea.

The Yonhap News Agency from South Korea reported that the missionary had been engaged in rescuing North Korean defectors, providing humanitarian aid, and ministering for individuals in Russia's Far East. This area is known for hosting thousands of North Korean workers who are believed to be employed illegally.

However, the organizations that supported his activities said they were unaware of the specifics of Baek's missionary activities in Russia when asked by The Korea Herald.

Baek was arrested by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) in Vladivostok in late January.

"The government hopes for our national's swift and secure reunion with his family, and to facilitate this, we are maintaining necessary communication with the Russian authorities," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lim Soo-suk said during a regular briefing.

The Foreign Ministry declined to disclose further details regarding the issue, such as the date South Korea was informed of Baek's arrest and the validity of Russia's claims of espionage, citing concerns for the safety of the South Korean citizen.

Baek and his wife, who remains unnamed, were initially arrested together, but his wife is believed to have been released.

"A local diplomatic mission has been providing necessary consular assistance since becoming aware of the arrest," the Foreign Ministry announced in a statement. "It is challenging to provide specific details regarding the matter that has been under the ongoing investigation."

When questioned about whether South Korea had lodged diplomatic protests against the Russian side, a senior official from the Foreign Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity, responded, "We are already engaging in necessary communication."

The official also said the ministry "has been communicating with his family" in South Korea.

The Korea Herald was unable to confirm the reason for Baek's detention. South Korea's National Intelligence Service responded to The Korea Herald's questions with a statement indicating that it had "nothing to share" on the issue.

However, TASS on Monday reported that a South Korean citizen had been detained in Russia for the first time ever on charges of espionage, citing an unnamed law enforcement source.

TASS later disclosed further details about Baek on Tuesday, asserting that 53-year-old Baek had been posing as a writer and receiving information constituting state secrets via a messaging app, according to information from law enforcement agencies.

The media also asserted that Baek is the founder of the registered Russian company Bely Kamen, which translates to "white stone" in English, operating in the tourism sector and located in Vladivostok.

TASS on Monday initially disclosed that Baek was allegedly passing classified information to foreign intelligence agencies, without providing further details. The materials related to Baek's criminal case have been designated as "top secret."

After his arrest in Vladivostok earlier this year, Baek was transferred to Moscow in late February for further investigation, according to TASS. The Lefortovsky Court on Monday extended his detention for an additional 3 months until June 15.

Baek is presently held at the Lefortovo Prison, notorious for its incarceration of high-profile political figures and inmates, including Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich.

According to the Russian criminal code, the crime of espionage carries a penalty of imprisonment ranging from 10 to 20 years.

The Russian Embassy in Seoul said, "The embassy has no comment on the matter," when contacted by The Korea Herald.

A source, who often visits Russia's Far East region and wished to remain anonymous, commented, "It would be an extremely serious situation if he were charged with espionage merely for providing support to overseas dispatched (North Korean) workers."

The source elaborated that Russia's decision may have been influenced by its "closer alignment" with North Korea.

The detention of Baek and subsequent media reports coincided with deteriorating relations between South Korea and Russia, largely due to Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which has strained diplomatic ties to a significant extent.

Baek is the most recent among several foreigners detained by Russian authorities since the onset of the war in Ukraine in February 2022. In March 2023, Russia detained Gershkovich, who the US believes is being unjustly held, on charges of espionage. Alsu Kurmasheva, a Russian-US journalist, has been in Russian custody since Oct. 18 on allegations of violating the country's foreign agent law.