North Korea’s security agency said Thursday it arrested a South Korean spy in Pyongyang who intended to rally anti-government forces, a claim that intelligence officials in Seoul quickly called ridiculous and groundless.
Outside analysts usually view such North Korean antics as a way to strengthen domestic support for leader Kim Jong Un – but specific claims that an individual spy has been captured, especially before an investigation is concluded, are unusual.
The North’s claim comes amid worsening ties. The Koreas had turned to tentative diplomacy after a spring that saw a near-daily barrage of threats, including North Korean warnings of nuclear strikes on Seoul and Washington. But tension has renewed since North Korea canceled planned reunions in September of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
The North Korean security ministry said that the South Korean initially said he was a Chinese citizen living in North Korea and then said he was a citizen of another country. The initial investigation found that the South Korean spent six years in a country bordering North Korea using religion to disguise anti-North Korea espionage activities, the North’s statement alleged.
Many South Korean missionaries work with North Korean defectors and border-crossers in China. One year ago, Kenneth Bae, an American missionary and tour operator, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after being arrested for alleged hostile acts in North Korea.
North Korea officially recognizes freedom of religion, but it tolerates only sanctioned churches, and activists and defectors call it one of the world’s worst places for religion.