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NIS, police nab an alleged spy sent by North

Disguised as Buddhist monk, suspect’s arrest comes at delicate time
July 26,2019
A man suspected to be a spy sent by North Korea’s most elite espionage agency was arrested last month, the JoongAng Ilbo reported Wednesday.

It was the first time in nine years that an alleged spy sent directly from the North was apprehended, as opposed to a spy residing in the South or a South Korean turncoat.

The man was disguised as a Buddhist monk and was apprehended while on a mission, according to intelligence authorities. Sources would not say what the mission entailed, but said it was not a terrorist attack.

The National Intelligence Service (NIS) together with the police arrested the suspect, a man in his 40s, and after initial questioning concluded he was an agent of North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), the sources said.

The RGB, believed to be established around 2009, is the intelligence agency of North Korea’s Ministry of People’s Armed Forces. It manages clandestine operations focused on Japan and South Korea, including infiltrations, intelligence collection, kidnappings, assassinations and terrorist attacks. It was once headed by Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party for South Korean affairs.

According to the sources, the suspect entered Korea last year and was active until his arrest in June. Intelligence authorities said he entered Korea and left a few years ago. He reentered last year through Jeju Island from a third country, using a non-Korean passport.

Sources said the suspect has been surrendered to prosecutors, who plan to indict him on charges of violating the National Security Act.

The NIS and police treated the case with extreme caution, refusing to confirm officially the arrest. The NIS gave a closed-door briefing to leaders of the Intelligence Committee of the National Assembly, including Chairwoman Lee Hye-hoon of the Bareunmirae Party, on Thursday, and the committee decided to keep the information secret.

“The NIS agreed to the briefing based on the promise that it would be off the record,” Lee said. “If I make public any information, it will give clues to North Korea whom we arrested and what situation he is facing now. It would be an act of helping the North.”

“The lawmakers on the committee agreed that they must cooperate so that the government can make the best use out of the arrested spy for our national interest,” she said.

It was the first time in nine years that a spy sent directly from North Korea was arrested. In January 2010, Dong Myeong-gwan and Kim Myeong-ho were arrested. They were dispatched from North Korea to assassinate Hwang Jang-yop, former secretary of the Workers’ Party, architect of the North’s ruling Juche (self-reliance) ideology and the highest-ranking North Korean defector to South Korea.

The two agents, also from the RGB, posed as defectors. They were each sentenced to serve 10 years in prison in July 2010.

It is rare for the government to keep the arrest of a suspected spy secret for a month. According to the National Intelligence Service, 35 spies were arrested from 2008 through last September, but arrests became rarer after the Moon Jae-in administration started in May 2017. No arrest was made in 2017 and only one arrest was made last year.

Last month’s arrest appeared to be kept secret because of the sensitive timing. The government was trying to restore dialogue with North Korea, and U.S. President Donald Trump had a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the truce village of Panmunjom at the border on June 30.

BY KIM MIN-WOOK [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]