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South Korean National Detained in Russia on Espionage Charges

Published March 12, 2024
2 months ago

In an event escalating diplomatic tensions, Russia has detained a South Korean citizen, Baek Won-soon, on allegations of espionage, the latest in a string of foreign nationals facing legal challenges in the country. Citing Russian authorities, TASS news agency reported Baek's arrest in Vladivostok, which occurred at the beginning of the year, and subsequent transfer to Moscow for further investigation.

Baek, now in the notorious Lefortovo Prison, has seen his detention extended till June 15, as ordered by a Russian court, while details of his case remain tightly sealed under the "top secret" classification. According to TASS’s report, an unnamed law enforcement source claimed Baek transmitted information deemed as state secrets "to foreign intelligence services," although the specifics of these allegations were not disclosed.

The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs acknowledged Baek's situation, confirming that their consulate is providing support. The ministry, citing the active investigation, refrained from offering additional commentary.

Further details emerged from Yonhap news agency’s Korean service, which profiled Baek as a missionary engaged in aiding North Korean defectors and providing humanitarian aid. His arrest reportedly came shortly after he entered Russia from China by land.

This incident underscores the first instance of a South Korean being held on spying charges in Russia, a country that branded South Korea as "unfriendly" in 2022 amidst Seoul's backing of Western sanctions over Russia’s Ukraine invasion.

The backdrop of strained relations between Russia and South Korea is further complicated by Russia's alliance with North Korea. After North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's visit and meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last September, both nations have faced allegations by the United States and others of engaging in military exchanges.

This case of Baek Won-soon follows other high-profile detentions, including U.S. journalists Evan Gershkovich and Alsu Kurmasheva—both also detained under grave charges and facing prolonged incarcerations in Lefortovo Prison. The U.S. State Department has notably criticized Russia's handling of these cases, citing lack of fair trial standards and transparency.

The South Korean detainment arises amidst a pattern of Russia targeting foreign nationals, which is being viewed by many as a tit-for-tat tactic amid increasing international isolation due to the Ukrainian conflict. With espionage in Russia potentially leading to a 20-year prison term, the stakes for Baek Won-soon and others like him could not be higher.

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