South Korean “religious figure” arrested in Russian Federation for espionage

   March 25, Moscow (DPRK ISG Information Bureau - RSTV)   


[English] [Русский] [FR]


On March 24, Konstantin Asmolov, Leading Researcher at the Center for Korean Studies (Institute of China and Contemporary Asia of the RAS) and Director of the 2nd Scientific Department of the DPRK ISG, published an analytical article in the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook” in connection with the arrest of a South Korean spy in Russia.

Below is the full content of the article.

On 11 March 2024, Russian media reported that a 53-year-old South Korean citizen named Baek (the detainee’s name varies – Baek Won Sung, less frequently Baek Kwang Soon) had been arrested for espionage and was currently being held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, normally reserved for high-level political prisoners.

The news raised eyebrows both in Russia and abroad, as it is the first time a South Korean citizen has been arrested in Russia for espionage, an offence punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Against the background of difficult relations between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Korea, the news began to grow with various rumours and speculations, and therefore the author tries to understand who arrested the South Korean and what his espionage activities could have been. Since the case is being handled in “top secret” mode (it is not even specified to which foreign power the pastor passed the information), the information has to be gathered from disparate sources, and what emerges is a more than interesting picture.

First of all, the arrested person turned out to be a “religious figure”, which in 90% of cases means a Protestant pastor who, like many of them, combines religious activity with commercial activity. He has a university degree, no criminal record, is married and has a small child. He is a believer and, while in Lefortovo, asked for religious literature in Korean, which seems strange to the author – such a contingent always carries a Bible in Korean.

In January 2024, he travelled as a civilian from China to Vladivostok with his wife, who was also detained by the FSB, but was released and is now reportedly in South Korea. The exact date of his arrest is unknown (“at the beginning of the year”), but Baek had been in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison since late February. The Lefortovo court in Moscow recently extended his detention until 15 June in a closed session, and it appears that the trial will take place in the capital.

There are many South Korean pastors in Russia and the CIS, but their reputation is, to say the least, peculiar. In his time, the author collected a lot of material on the activities of South Korean destructive Protestant sects against the DPRK or in the post-Soviet space. We can at least recall the case of the “Grace” sect, whose followers tried to establish themselves in the Russian Far East and were “famous” for training sessions during which people were subjected to psychological treatment with drugs and almost driven mad: as a result, “Grace” was accused of deceiving believers, bribery, tax evasion, as well as possession of potent psychotropic substances and espionage.  On 27 April 2011, The Khabarovsk regional court closed “Grace” with the words “for numerous violations of Russian federal legislation”.

The stories about how yet another Protestant pastor was doing subversive work against the DPRK are not onenot two and not threeAt the end of 2023, the author wrote about new data related to an attempt to organise an assassination attempt on Kim Jong Un. The recruitment of the main character in this story took place on the territory of the Russian Federation and, according to the author’s information, Protestant pastors were not involved.

Moreover, at least during the Lee Myung Bak administration, the author came across information about attempts by persons posing as pastors to recruit representatives of Russian Koreans to commit terrorist acts on the territory of the DPRK under the guise of “local Christian resistance”.

Therefore, when the author mentioned that the detainee was a pastor, he was morally prepared for anything and his premonitions did not deceive him. A few days after the sensation, the South Korean media began to openly admit that Baek was known in Vladivostok as a missionary who had been helping North Korean defectors for 10 years. More precisely, the pastor not only worked with North Korean citizens on the territory of the Russian Federation, but also “participated in the rescue”. This is what South Korea calls recruitment followed by evacuation, after which a former DPRK citizen is used in propaganda as having “chosen freedom”.

The relevant authorities of the Russian Federation occasionally come across such activity by South Korean pastors, but it usually ends in deportation without criminal proceedings. As a former diplomat who served in Russia for more than a decade told The Korea Times, “South Korean missionaries in Russia offer asylum to refugees from North Korea and help them apply for refugee status at the UN Refugee Agency in Moscow. This practice is common” as Moscow is not particularly involved in “inter-Korean disputes on Russian territory”, and the arrest and subsequent transfer to Moscow suggests that Pastor Baek is facing something much more serious. The South Korean newspaper The Dong-a Ilbo agrees: “The number of South Korean missionaries who come to Russia via China and work with DPRK citizens is so large that it can be called an overabundance”. In this context, “the arrest of a person on espionage charges for the first time in history, rather than just deportation, seems unusual“.

In Russia, Pastor Baek existed in three guises, and as an official at the ROK Consulate General in Vladivostok pointed out, “There are many different stories about Baek, but there is no official confirmation of them“.

The first hypostasis is that of a religious leader, but even the South Korean media do not specify which congregation. Since a number of Korean Protestant churches have separated from or are affiliated with American churches, we can assume that the pastor’s spiritual advisors may be in Washington, D.C., rather than in Seoul. This version is indirectly supported by the fact that Baek was not a member of the relevant association and had little contact with other Korean missionaries; Yonhap News Agency also suggests that he was supported by Christian and human rights groups from the United States.

Another local Korean church representative explained: “Around 2018, due to the mass expulsion of missionaries from China, a significant number of them arrived in Primorsky Krai and, as I understand it, Pastor Baek also arrived at that time. Again, this is circumstantial evidence because the “mass expulsion of missionaries” occurred after their activities against the DPRK had become excessive. However, over the past 10 years Baek has been travelling regularly between China, Primorsky Krai (Vladivostok, Ussuriysk) and Khabarovsk Krai “to help DPRK citizens“, and there is also a rumour that after arriving in Vladivostok in early 2023, Baek allegedly returned from Ukraine, where he also “provided assistance”. The conservative Chosun Ilbo also wrote that “after China passed a law to strengthen the fight against espionage, which could lead to life imprisonment or even the death penalty, Pastor Baek tried to move his base from China to Russia“.

The second hypostasis is a representative of the formally charitable NGO Global Love Rice Sharing Foundation, with which he worked for more than 4 years and was the head of its Vladivostok branch (according to other sources, the main representative in Russia). Through this organisation he worked with North Koreans and with a “local support group for low-income people”.

As NGO director Lee Sung Gu began to explain, “Baek has been doing missionary work for us…. There are all kinds of Russian, Thai and North Korean workers who are poor and needy, and we provide them with clothes, food and the Gospel. Lee describes Paik as someone who was dedicated to his work of providing basic needs such as food, clothing and medicine to vulnerable people and foreign workers, and “the suspicion that he was involved in the defection of North Koreans is just outrageous”. Interestingly, he said the NGO had no relationship with the ROK government and existed solely through sponsorship. Whose sponsorship, then?

Nevertheless, allegations that Baek has been involved in “rescue missions” are too numerous to ignore. Moreover, one of his acquaintances told the Yonhap news agency that Baek had even helped some DPRK citizens organise their escape.

The location for such work is well chosen. In Vladivostok, North Korean workers can move freely, allowing NGO representatives to “contact and assist the refugees”. Also, unlike China, Russia has the International Refugee Agency (UNHCR), so if you are recognised as a refugee with the help of the UNHCR, you can escape relatively safely from the Russian Federation to the South.

The third hypostasis – Baek was the general director and founder of Bely Kamen LLC, which was registered on 3 March 2020 in Vladivostok at 28 Narodny Avenue, office 214A and carries out tour operator activities in the Russian Federation. In addition to its core activities, the company is engaged in exploration drilling, construction works, medical, restaurants, hotels, land passenger transport activities, as well as trading in souvenirs, clothing, footwear, textile products and food products.

There were three people on the staff of the firm, Bely Kamen could not be found at the place of registration, and its loss in 2023 amounted to 4.5 million rubles. All this is very reminiscent of a classic cover firm, which makes it possible to organise the arrival in Russia of the right people as tourists or the removal from the country of objects of more than just commercial interest. In addition, unlike the members of the Missionary Council who get religious visas and work quietly, Pack was interested in a business visa that would allow him to stay in Russia for as long a period as possible.

Incidentally, Kenneth Bae, one of the spy pastors detained in the DPRK, also formally ran a travel agency, although his activities were not so much tourist as missionary, after which the travel agency’s website and a whole range of other materials relating to Kenneth Bae were promptly removed from the network by colleagues of the arrested man.

In general, South Korean intelligence has been operating in Russia for quite a long time, and there have been plenty of scandals involving it, but these were mostly situations in which Russian citizens were arrested for giving information to intelligence representatives for financial rewards. Their South Korean counterparts usually acted under diplomatic cover and therefore were not involved in criminal cases. However, their methods of work were rather clumsy, up to (from the author’s personal experience) calls of the category “Hello, my name is Pak, I am an employee of a research institute, tell me something about North Korea’s nuclear programme, and I will give you a package of ginseng tea, a box of chocopai and a tie” (it was the late nineties, and the South Korean side seriously believed that such a reward would be enough for poor Russian scientists). The methods of the arrested pastor did not go too far: “having contacted his interlocutor, he introduced himself as a writer and received from him information in messenger that constituted a state secret. This information he was to pass on to foreign intelligence services“.

But if the South Korean secret service is still more or less within its bounds, a non-state organisation linked to Protestant sects, many of which can safely be defined as “destructive”, and waging its own struggle against the DPRK, often descends into direct terrorism. At the end of last year, for example, it was once again revealed that the North Korean secret service’s statement that it was preparing an assassination attempt on Kim Jong Un, which many Western experts considered to be unjustified propaganda by the regime, suddenly turned out to be true. It should be noted that the contact with the main defendant in the case took place in the Russian Federation, where he was on a salary, and communicated with him through people who had a formal cover of “religious figures”.

According to sources in the security services, the visit of the President of the State Affairs Comrade Kim Jong Un to the Russian Federation caused a natural increase in the intelligence activities of the intelligence services of the United States and South Korea.

In the author’s view, at least two blocks of information are of strategic interest. The first is specific details of military-technical cooperation between the two countries, because despite the fact that North Korea’s accusations of supplying shells and missiles to Russia have been voiced at the level of the ROK Defence Minister, there is still no direct evidence of this. And it is very desirable to find out the details of what is being transported in the mysterious containers.

The second is the specifics of guarding the North Korean leader, whose elimination is an important element of strategy in the event of a North-South conflict. Here, any detail, even an insignificant one, can be useful. Let’s not forget that in South Korea and the United States, variants of a “decapitation strike” in the event of a military conflict are being worked out in theory and practised in practice, including during special forces exercises.

It is clear that Pastor Baek’s story may take a long time to unfold, and while both sides comply with all the necessary formalities, the detainee will be provided with the consular assistance that is available to any South Korean citizen arrested or detained abroad.

On 13 March, South Korean Ambassador to Russia Lee Do Hoon met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko. During the meeting, which took place at the initiative of the South Korean side, the ambassador asked the Russian government to actively cooperate in ensuring Baek’s safety and protecting his rights.

On the same day, 13 March 2024, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova outlined Moscow’s official position: the Russian Foreign Ministry is in close contact with the South Korean side, but any additional information about the progress of the investigation is confidential. As for the impact on bilateral relations, “unfortunately, we have seen many actions on the part of Seoul that go against the interests of the peoples of the two countries and do not contribute to the development of bilateral relations,” but Moscow is determined to “effectively resolve the issue in a mutually respectful manner.”

On 14 March, National Security Advisor Chang Ho Jin said that “there was communication between South Korean and Russian authorities before the case became public….We will continue to explore ways to provide effective consular protection while closely following the Russian investigation.”

On 15 March, South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lim Soo Suk, said the South Korean government was “in contact with Russia through diplomatic channels.” Seoul hopes that the detainee “will return home safely to the arms of his family as soon as possible.” The foreign ministry spokesman declined to comment further, citing a lack of information because the investigation is closed.

It is important for the author that official Seoul has so far avoided statements of the “innocent pastor detained by Putin’s regime” category.

The accusations of espionage are either a misunderstanding or have a political purpose,” Lee Sun Koo told Yonhap News Agency. “It seems that Russia’s actions may be because our government is supporting Ukraine in defence of freedom and democracy, because of which there has been a misconception that our pastors and missionaries are allegedly engaged in espionage or intelligence information transfer,” Lee suggested. The reverend stated that Baek has not engaged in any other activities other than missionary and charitable work (what about Bely Kamen!!). In this context, Global Love Rice Sharing Foundation plans to collect tens of thousands of signatures to save the missionary’s life, petition the Foreign Ministry and demand more action at the government level.

“The Korea Times, the voice of the centre-right opposition (the one whose leader,  Lee Jun Seok, went to Ukraine very “loudly”) UFP, came out with an editorial titled “Putin risks worsening his reputation“, according to which Baek’s arrest would “further aggravate the already tainted relations between Seoul and Moscow”. According to the author of the article, the decision to arrest the pastor was “politically and diplomatically motivated and likely aimed at winning favour with North Korea” as it coincides with President Vladimir Putin’s upcoming planned visit to Pyongyang. In addition, it appears that Russia intends to use this “hostage” situation to increase its leverage on South Korea to refrain from supporting Ukraine. Russia now faces the urgent task of transparently clarifying the allegations and dispelling any possible misunderstandings. Relations between Seoul and Moscow will deteriorate further if Baek is punished in court.”

Moreover, the incident could signal a change in Russia’s stance toward North Korean defectors, especially given the detainee’s alleged involvement in helping North Korean workers in Russia’s Far East region.”

Jeong Jae Won, a professor of Eurasian studies at Kookmin University, told The Korea Times, “Russia’s Federal Security Service has long been sceptical of South Korean missionaries, not only because of their religious activities, but also because of speculation that government spies may be among them…While much remains unknown about the case and whether he actually engaged in illegal activities, Russia’s decision to publicise the incident suggests that it may use it to influence relations with South Korea.”

Cho Han Bum, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said South Korean missionaries helping North Korean workers in Russia faced minimal interference before the Ukraine crisis. But after the SMO, Russia tightened control over such activities, even deporting some missionaries.

Cho believes Russia’s announcement of the missionary’s arrest is an attempt to put pressure on South Korea, but suggests that there is a possibility that Baek could be released, as Russia is unlikely to completely sever ties with South Korea.

Chosun Ilbo, a conservative and pro-North news outlet, quoted “an expert familiar with the local situation in Russia” as saying that “Russia does not arrest foreigners without legal grounds. Since this case was revealed by the TASS news agency, more details may follow to understand the changes in Russia’s foreign policy“.

Understandably, the media agree that “if Baek’s release is delayed or he receives a harsh sentence, it could be bad news for Korea-Russia relations“. However, neither the Russian nor the South Korean side can be seen to be whipping up media hysteria and using this story to further increase tensions between Moscow and Seoul.

That is all for now, and the author promises to follow further developments, separating the policies of official Seoul from the activities of such pastors and their overseas masters. It is to be hoped that the story of Pastor Baek will be accompanied by the necessary level of publicity, which will at least allow us to counter the enemy propaganda narrative about the unfortunate missionary who was imprisoned for nothing.

Konstantin ASMOLOV, candidate of historical sciences, leading researcher at the center for Korean studies, Institute of China and Contemporary Asia of the RAS, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

Category: Coordination Committee of the DPRK ISG | Views: 176 | Added by: redstartvkp | Tags: North Korea, RUSSIA, Korea, DPRK
Total comments: 0