South Korean accused of spying in Russia is a missionary helping the poor, Christian relief agency says

A South Korean held in Russia on an espionage allegation is a missionary dispatched there to support the needy and spread the gospel, a South Korean Christian aid group said Wednesday, calling the spying suspicion “preposterous.”

Russia’s state news agency Tass said Monday that the South Korean was detained “at the start of the year” in the eastern city of Vladivostok on suspicions that he passed state secrets to foreign intelligence services. Tass said he was the first South Korean arrested in Russia on alleged espionage.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said it has been providing necessary consular services to him and communicating with Russian authorities to secure his early release. But the ministry refused to provide further details.

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Over the past year, Russia has detained several foreign nationals and accused them of committing various offenses, including Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter.

On Wednesday, the Global Love Rice Sharing Foundation, a Christian relief agency near Seoul, said the man is its sole missionary in Vladivostok. It said his job was providing clothes, medicines and daily necessities to underprivileged people there, including poor foreign workers, while working to evangelize them.

“The espionage allegation totally doesn’t make sense … and is preposterous,” the Rev. Lee SeonKu, leader of the aid foundation, said.

South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lim Soo-suk

South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lim Soo-suk speaks during a briefing on a South Korean citizen arrested in Russia at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul, South Korea, on March 12, 2024. (Hwang Gwang-mo/Yonhap via AP)

Lee identified the man only by his family name Baek, saying he has used an alias in Vladivostok. He said Baek had been doing missionary work in the Russian city for four years starting after he was deported from China. Lee said he last communicated with Baek in late December.

South Korean media reported that Baek gave assistance to North Korean workers and defectors in Vladivostok and helped some of them resettle in other countries, activities that are sensitive to both Russia and North Korea. Lee said he couldn’t confirm the reports.

Russia had previously overlooked South Korean missionaries assisting North Korean workers on its territory. But since its invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, Russia has applied strong pressure on South Korean missionaries involved in such activities and deported some of them, analyst Cho Han Bum at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification said.

South Korea, a key U.S. ally in Asia, joined international sanctions against Russia and has been providing Ukraine with humanitarian and financial support, though it hasn’t supplied weapons to Ukraine. Russia has reportedly designated South Korea as an “unfriendly” nation.

Cho said Russia’s disclosure of the missionary’s arrest was likely meant to use the case as leverage in dealings with South Korea. He said there is “a fifty-fifty chance for missionary Baek’s release as Russia won’t give up relations with South Korea completely.”

According to the Tass report, Baek was taken to Moscow from Vladivostok at the end of February. He was being held in Lefortovo Prison, where a court on Monday ordered his detention extended until June 15, Tass said.

In March 2023, Russia detained Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was on a business trip to Russia, on espionage charges. In October, Russian-U.S. journalist Alsu Kurmasheva was detained for failing to register as a foreign agent and later charged with spreading “false information” about the Russian military.

Last month, Tass reported a German man had been detained and accused of smuggling drugs. Also in February, Russian state news agencies reported a dual U.S.-Russian woman identified as Ksenia Khavana was arrested on charges of committing treason.

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Russia has previously been accused of targeting foreign citizens to use them as bargaining chips to secure the release of Russian prisoners abroad. The Russian government has denied the accusations.

In a recent interview, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to suggest that in exchange for Gershkovich, Russia is seeking the return of Vadim Krasikov, who is serving a life sentence in Germany after being convicted of the 2019 killing of Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili, a 40-year-old Georgian citizen of Chechen ethnicity.

Gershkovich is also held in Lefortovo Prison, notorious for its harsh conditions. The prison dates from the czarist era and has been a terrifying symbol of repression since Soviet times.