Russia arrests missionary – The Korea Times

Putin risks worsening ill reputation

Russia’s recent arrest of a Korean missionary on charges of espionage is feared to further exacerbate already soured relations between Seoul and Moscow. Russia’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday it will positively consider letting the Korean national, identified only by his surname Baek, meet a Korean consular official at the request of the Korean Embassy in Moscow.

Seoul’s foreign ministry said Korean Ambassador to Russia Lee Do-hoon met with Russian Vice Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko to ask for more support to secure Baek’s safety and protect his human rights. Baek had been investigated by Russian authorities after he was arrested in January. Russia’s state-run TASS news agency said Baek was caught by Russia’s Federal Security Board (FSB) officers in Vladivostok.

Following his arrest, Baek was transferred to Moscow and placed in custody at Lefortovo Prison, notorious for its practice of confining the majority of inmates to solitary cells. Allegedly, the FSB suspects Baek of involvement in espionage, accusing him of leaking to foreign nations confidential information related to Russia.

Russia’s decision to arrest the Korean missionary seems to be politically and diplomatically motivated, likely aimed at gaining favor with North Korea. This action coincides with President Vladimir Putin’s upcoming planned visit to Pyongyang, suggesting Russia’s inclination to offer gestures to the North. Additionally, it appears that Russia intends to utilize this “hostage” situation to bolster its leverage, pressuring South Korea to refrain from supporting Ukraine. Now, Russia faces the imperative task of transparently explaining the allegations and dispelling any potential misunderstandings.

Many claim Baek had been involved in humanitarian endeavors, including rescue missions for North Korean defectors and providing support to workers at logging or construction sites while engaging in missionary activities. The Global Love Rice Sharing Foundation, with which Baek is affiliated, told Yonhap News, Tuesday, “Baek has been engaged in purely missionary and rescue activities,” rebuffing speculation about his espionage charges.

We strongly urge Russian authorities to uphold Baek’s fundamental human rights and ensure that he receives a fair and impartial judicial process. It is imperative for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to utilize all available diplomatic and communication channels to prevent any possibility of Baek being subjected to unfair treatment.

This case has garnered significant attention as it marks the first instance of a Korean national being arrested on espionage charges in Russia. The timing of this development is particularly worrisome given the strained relations between South Korea and Russia, especially in contrast to the seemingly close ties between Pyongyang and Moscow. The alleged collaborative efforts in various sectors, including military, energy, and food, between North Korea and Russia further fuel concerns surrounding this situation.

Moscow’s designation of Seoul as an “unfriendly state” followed South Korea’s participation in international sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. This move further strained the already tense relationship between the two nations. Matters escalated when a spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry made disparaging remarks against President Yoon Suk Yeol, characterizing his statement as “blatantly biased” and “odious.” Such criticism, unprecedented for a diplomat to direct towards the head of another country, garnered widespread condemnation.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited Russia last year for a summit with Putin. The North has allegedly been delivering a huge amount of ammunition and missiles to Russia to use in its war against Ukraine.

Russia should remember that its potentially improper way of dealing with the South Korean national will only intensify international criticism against it and its president. Putin has already received a barrage of salvos over his alleged role in the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Bilateral relations between Seoul and Moscow are expected to deteriorate further should Baek face judicial punishment. Both nations must make concerted efforts to avoid a repeat of the 1998 incident when they mutually expelled diplomats. However, it is challenging for Seoul and Moscow to swiftly mend ties, especially in light of the conflict in Ukraine and the recent warming of relations between Russia and North Korea.

Despite these seemingly unfavorable factors, however, the two nations should double down on efforts to mend ties. They should carry out prudent and cautious diplomatic approaches for the benefit of both sides.

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