Beijing gets tough on Southern spies

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Beijing gets tough on Southern spies

China is getting tougher on South Korean officials caught collecting intelligence on North Korea, indicating Beijing’s heightened sensitivity to protecting its ally’s secrets, according to an intelligence source in Seoul.

A South Korean military field official who was responsible for collecting information on North Korea’s nuclear project in China was arrested by Chinese authorities in Shenyang on July 10, 2009, during a business trip in the region.

The officer, surnamed Cho, was tried and sentenced to three years in prison for espionage. Cho was forced to serve over a year of his term and then was handed over to South Korean authorities around Sept. 28 along with other South Korean prisoners.

The Chinese officials who incarcerated Cho said he had tried to receive intelligence on North Korea’s nuclear program and missiles through a Chinese official who had contacts with a North Korean colonel.

The source said it was actually a sting operation run by China against Cho.

“The Chinese police used the Chinese officer, whom they had arrested beforehand, to lure Major Cho to a rendezvous to secure evidence he was receiving the information, then arrested him,” said the source. Cho allegedly gave tens of thousands of dollars to the Chinese officer for the intelligence about North Korea.

At a similar time last July, Chinese police arrested another South Korean officer surnamed Go for spying in Beijing. However, Go was deported from China in December after authorities could not prove he was guilty of espionage.

China’s decision to hold Cho captive for over a year is tougher behavior than usual. Usually a captured agent is released and repatriated after an official from the home country delivers documents promising to prevent a similar happening.

Cho’s imprisonment also caused unrest among South Korean intelligence agents because he was repatriated with South Korean criminals who had been arrested in China for robbery or fraud.

“I know there was outcry from agents in the country over China’s unusual decision to incarcerate an active officer on duty for an extended period of time and treating him like any other criminal,” said the source.

South Korean intelligence authorities believe China got tougher on the South because of heightened sensitivity towards intelligence on North Korea at the time. South Korea had been in need of information on North’s nuclear power after the regime conducted its second nuclear test in May 2009.

The South Korean government has not yet officially disclosed information on the two officers as relations between Seoul and Beijing have remained tense over North Korea.

China is regarded as North Korea’s closest ally, and the two have strengthened their alliance over the past months as the North disclosed its plan for leader Kim Jong-il’s son to succeed him in power.

China has not condemned North Korea for attacking the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong and has been under pressure from the United States to keep a tighter rein on its North Korean neighbor.


By Lee Young-jong [christine.kim@joongang.co.kr]

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