News / Asia

South Korea Arrests 2 Alleged Spies for North

SEOUL - South Korean police Thursday revealed they arrested two men this month for alleged espionage activities on behalf of North Korea.

Prosecutors say they are attempting to determine whether the suspects played a role in the recent widespread jamming of global positioning signal (GPS) receivers in South Korea. The interference forced planes and ships to rely on backup navigational equipment.

Authorities say the interference was noted by pilots of hundreds of commercial flights over South Korea between April 28 and May 13. It also affected GPS receivers in ships in and near the port of Incheon.

At the time, officials here said they had pinpointed the jamming as emanating from Kaesong, above the DMZ in North Korea.

The Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency says one of the suspects, a 74-year-old businessman identified only by his surname Lee, has a previous espionage conviction.

The second suspect, identified as Kim, 56 years of age, acquired citizenship in New Zealand and was conducting business there. A third individual, named Chung, who is under investigation, but has not been arrested, is a former defense contractor.

Police say one of the men had orders from Pyongyang to acquire GPS jamming devices and radar systems.

A police inspector says that Kim and Lee had sophisticated technical knowledge and met with a North Korean agent in Dandong in northeastern China in July of last year.

The president of the non-governmental Korea Defense Network, Shin In-kyun, says people are not dissuaded from spying for the North because actual sentences are not severe, even though those convicted of espionage can face a death sentence.

Shin says that when Lee, the suspect in this current case, was previously convicted in the 1970's he only served a 17-year sentence. But currently the punishments for spying are much lighter, usually about a three-to-four year prison term. Shin says the prison terms need to be lengthened to send a warning to those contemplating acts of espionage.

No one has been executed in South Korea since 1997.

From time to time, South Koreans are apprehended on charges of spying for the North.

News of the latest arrests come as South Korea's political mainstream began to move against a pair of lawmakers in the National Assembly regarded as potential security threats.

Lee Seok-gi and Kim Jae-yeon took their seats in the parliament Wednesday despite allegations that the pro-North sympathizers won their posts in March through a rigged party primary.

The two are among 13 lawmakers from the far-left United Progressive Party (UPP). They are members of the party's largest faction, composed of former student activists known for their sympathies towards Pyongyang.

Conservative members in the legislature say they are worried some of the UPP lawmakers will leak state secrets to the North that they will have access to as potential members of the intelligence or defense committees.

The two Koreas have no diplomatic relations and no peace treaty. The United States and Soviet Union in 1945 agreed to divide the peninsula along the 38th parallel. Elections in the south brought to power in Seoul the anti-communist Rhee Syng-man while the Soviets installed Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang.

Kim invaded the South in 1950. A devastating three-year civil war with foreign troops on both sides was fought to a stalemate.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.

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