Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 139

A nearly three-week-old spy wrangle between Russia and South Korea took an unexpected turn yesterday when Seoul recalled five of its diplomats from Russia. Reports in South Korea and Russia differed as to the precise reasons for the move, but in general they suggested that South Korean authorities had ordered the recall under pressure from Moscow.

The spy row began on July 4, when Russia ordered the expulsion of Cho Sung Woo, a South Korean diplomat who was said to have been caught red-handed while trying to obtain classified information from a top-ranking Russian Foreign Ministry official. The Russian ministry official, Valentin Moiseev, has since been arrested and charged with treason. Moscow, meanwhile, identified Cho as a South Korean intelligence officer. On July 8, Seoul retaliated against Cho’s expulsion by ordering a Russian diplomat, Oleg Abramkin, out of South Korea. Moscow claimed that the tit-for-tat expulsion was unjustified and warned that it might take additional actions. (See Monitor, July 6-9; July 15)

News sources yesterday suggested that the South Korean decision to recall the five diplomats was the result of negotiations conducted quietly between the intelligence establishments of the two countries in the days following the expulsions. Those talks reportedly led to an agreement under which South Korea and Russia agreed to limit to two the number of their intelligence personnel working as diplomats in the other country. Russia had reportedly claimed that it had two intelligence officers working in South Korea and wanted the South Koreans to have the number in Russia. The five South Koreans who are leaving Russia apparently all have connections to South Korea’s intelligence service.

It remains unclear whether both sides now consider the spy incident closed. The issue will reportedly be among the items on the agenda next week when Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov holds talks in Manila (at a forum of ASEAN) with his South Korean counterpart, Park Chung Soo. (AP, UPI, Xinhua, Russian agencies, July 20)