Korean spying in Tripoli upsets Libya, strains ties
According to the sources, an intelligence agent at the Korean Embassy in Libya was detained, questioned and deported last month.
Complaining that the agent posed a threat to the national security of Libya, Libyan authorities detained and questioned him earlier last month, diplomatic sources said. Tripoli informed Seoul on June 15 of its decision to declare the agent persona non grata. Three days later, the agent was sent home to Korea.
“The agent was collecting information on Libya’s defense industry’s ties with North Korea, but the Libyan authorities had some misunderstanding,” an official said. “There appears to be a difference in their assessment and interpretation of an intelligence activity than ours.” Libya has diplomatic ties with both Koreas.
Local media in the North African nation, including Asharq Al-Awsat, told a different story.
According to local media reports, Libyan security authorities believe the Korean agent was spying on key Libyan government officials and collecting intelligence on an international aid organization run by Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi’s family. Tripoli raised the issue with Seoul and demanded an apology and explanation about what it called “illicit spying activities,” the reports said.
The Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, a charity led by Saif al-Islam Qaddhafi, son of the Libyan leader, has been in the news. Recently, the charity said it will send an aid ship to the Gaza Strip. The plan came weeks after Israel’s interception of other aid ships trying to break its blockade of Gaza.
According to Yonhap News Agency, a Libyan official told the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat that the authorities were trying to establish whether the Korean agent was working for Seoul alone or other intelligence agencies. It was the second time a Korean diplomat has been deported from a host country. The first incident took place in July 1998 when Korea and Russia each deported a diplomat.
More signs of trouble have been seen since the agent’s deportation. Libya’s mission in Seoul abruptly shut down last month, puzzling Korean businessmen trying to obtain visas to visit their projects in the North African country. On June 24, the Economic Cooperation Bureau of Libya suspended its operation and its diplomats returned home, telling the Korean government they were going on vacation.
The Libyan authorities have also arrested two South Koreans, including a Christian pastor, on charges of violating the Muslim country’s religious law. Despite a Korean government request, the two men have not been granted consular access, officials said.
As the situation grew worse, the government sent President Lee Myung-bak’s elder brother, Grand National Representative Lee Sang-deuk, as a special envoy to Tripoli on July 6 to work the problem.
During his one-week trip, Lee reportedly had two meetings with a senior Libyan intelligence official and explained Seoul’s position. The two countries agreed to resolve the situation through talks between intelligence services, a source said. Korean intelligence officials arrived in Libya on July 20 and presented Seoul’s position. As of yesterday, they were waiting for their Libyan counterparts’ response, but no sign of a breakthrough is seen.
A senior Korean government official confirmed yesterday the situation is being handled with the utmost delicacy. “The government sincerely hopes that this incident will not have a negative impact on the two countries’ ties,” the official said. “This year, Korea and Libya mark the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations, and we hope the friendship will further develop.”
The relationship has been heavily focused on economic ties. With Daewoo Engineering and Construction’s project to build a medical school for Garyounis University in Benghazi in 1978 as a starting point, 29 Korean companies have been working on 288 projects worth $34.6 billion in total. They are also eyeing more power plant and subway construction projects in the country.
The two countries established full diplomatic relations in 1980. Libya’s diplomatic ties with North Korea date back to 1974, but bilateral exchanges have largely shrunk after Tripoli stopped arms trade with Pyongyang in 1992.
By Ser Myo-ja [firstname.lastname@example.org]