Russia’s detainment of S. Korean national could be pressure tool to protest Seoul’s arms sales to Ukraine

Posted on : 2024-03-13 15:41 KST Modified on : 2024-03-13 17:26 KST
Arrest comes amid deteriorating Seoul-Moscow relations and renewed Pyongyang-Moscow partnership
Lefortovo Prison, where South Korean national Baek Won-soon is being held by Russian authorities in Moscow. (AFP/Yonhap News)
Lefortovo Prison, where South Korean national Baek Won-soon is being held by Russian authorities in Moscow. (AFP/Yonhap News)

Russian state media reported Monday that a South Korean involved in helping North Korean defectors has been detained in Russia on charges of espionage.
This marks the first case a South Korean has been arrested on alleged spying in Russia and is expected to deepen the rift in South Korea-Russia relations.

TASS, a Russian state-owned news agency, reported on Monday (local time) that a South Korean national surnamed Baek was detained in the southeastern port city of Vladivostok earlier this year on charges of espionage, was transferred to Moscow in late February, and is currently being held in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison.

TASS claimed that Baek is being suspected of handing over classified information to foreign intelligence services, and that criminal case materials of the case have been marked as “top secret.”

While it is impossible to verify the particularities of Baek’s espionage charges, there are many who believe that this case is related to deteriorating South Korea-Russia relations and the strengthening Russia-North Korea partnership.

After South Korea joined most Western countries in sanctioning Russia after its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russia placed South Korea on its list of “unfriendly countries.” Conversely, military cooperation between Russia and North Korea was renewed in 2023, and the two countries continue to enhance strategic partnerships.

The timing of Russia’s disclosure of the case also calls a lot into question. Baek was arrested by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) in January, a fact which Russia did not relay to the South Korean government until February.

Cases of this nature are usually negotiated in private for the safety of those involved. However, Russia has made this case public by leaking the news through state media. In a situation in which Russia has remained highly critical about South Korea’s military aid to Ukraine, going so far as to issue warnings against it, this case may be intended to put pressure on Seoul’s support for Kyiv. 

An official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated, “After being informed of Baek’s arrest, we have been providing systematic consular assistance and communicating through bilateral South Korea-Russia diplomatic channels,” adding it was difficult to divulge specifics as the matter is still under investigation.

The rapid closeness between North Korea and Russia may have also impacted this case.

Baek is a pastor who has been working with North Korean defectors and workers while going back and forth between the Russian Far East and China. He was arrested in January, a few days after entering Vladivostok by land from China. His wife was also detained but has since been released and is currently in South Korea.

It could be said that Russia, which has been in close contact with North Korea since 2023, has decided to actively support North Korea when it comes to defectors, and is seeking to punish South Koreans for activities related to aiding defectors.

Many foreign nationals have been arrested in Russia on charges of espionage since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, such as Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was detained on Mar. 30, 2023, by the FSB.

Russia has accused Gershvokich of spreading false information about the Russian military. In February, a woman with dual US-Russian citizenship was detained for treason.

By Park Min-hee, senior staff writer

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