|A South Korean activist suspected of following orders from North Korea enters the Seoul Central District Court in southern Seoul, Tuesday. The court issued arrest warrants for all of them. Yonhap|
Probe into North Korean spy ring gains traction
By Jung Min-ho
Four South Korean activists have been arrested on charges of carrying out orders from Pyongyang as the investigation into an alleged North Korean spy ring gains traction.
The Seoul Central District Court approved arrest warrants, Wednesday, for the members of "the Vanguard of the People's Independent Unification," citing flight risks and concerns over possible destruction of evidence.
The suspects are under suspicion of establishing the organization in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province, in 2016 to stir up anti-government sentiment and coordinate rallies. The organization was allegedly set up according to orders given by North Korean agents the suspects met in Cambodia, Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
The United Front Department of the North's ruling Workers' Party, which is in charge of propaganda and espionage operations, is believed to be involved.
The suspects waved Korean Unification Flags while welcoming North Korean athletes at the 2018 ISSF World Shooting Championships held in the city, and took part in anti-U.S. and anti-Japan street rallies over the last several years. Investigators suspect these incidents were not voluntary activities, but were carried out according to orders from the North.
The National Intelligence Service and police suspect the Changwon organization served as the headquarters for similar organizations in at least three other cities ― Jeonju, Jinju and Jeju. The investigators are looking into how they are related, what their common goals are and the existence of similar organizations.
One of the suspects is alleged to have introduced the North Korean agents to a former high-ranking official, surnamed Kang, at the Jeju office of the Progressive Party, a minor left-wing party. Kang is being investigated over allegations of espionage on the island.
All the suspects allegedly communicated with North Korean spies using steganography, a means of concealing messages or information within otherwise ordinary-looking text or data.
|Signs calling on the Yoon Suk Yeol administration to stop 'suppression' are attached to the wall of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions' office in Seoul, Jan. 19. Newsis|
Some of the messages they received from the North suggest that their accomplices could be working inside the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), a major labor umbrella organization that has been known to display messages such as "end South Korea-U.S. alliance" at its rallies.
On Jan. 18, investigators searched KCTU headquarters and the homes of two of its officials suspected of conspiring with some of the espionage suspects.
The KCTU accused the Yoon Suk Yeol administration of making political noise to distract from its own incompetence by exploiting the "obsolete" National Security Law.
The case may well be the biggest investigation targeting North Korea's spy activities in years. The latest such probe was conducted in 2021 when four people were indicted on espionage charges. They were suspected of carrying out orders from Pyongyang, including organizing a rally against the government's plan to procure 20 additional F-35A Lightning II stealth fighter jets.
The latest investigation has renewed political debate over whether the National Intelligence Service should keep the right to investigate espionage cases related to North Korea. It is scheduled to be stripped of that right after this year as a result of a revised law in 2020. The opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), which holds a majority in the National Assembly, has long criticized the intelligence agency and the National Security Law as tools to restrain citizens' liberty, while conservatives have viewed them as a necessary evil to counter threats from the North.
At a forum held at the National Assembly the same day, DPK lawmakers vowed to stop any attempts to reverse the reform.