Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 128

A spy scandal between Moscow and Seoul erupted over the weekend as a South Korean diplomat was accused of illegal espionage activities and ordered to leave Russia within three days. Cho Sung Woo, identified as a councilor at the South Korean Embassy in Moscow, was arrested on the night of July 3, reportedly as he met with a Russian Foreign Ministry official. The Russian official, who was not identified, was arrested and will be charged with treason. According to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the Russian official had “been regularly passing confidential information to the South Korean intelligence services… thus damaging Russia’s political and economic interests.” Cho, who has diplomatic immunity, was taken into custody and questioned by the FSB before being turned over to the South Korean Embassy. On July 4, the Russian Foreign Ministry complained officially about Cho’s activities to the South Korean ambassador to Russia. An FSB statement said that Cho worked for South Korean intelligence. (Reuter, AP, Russian agencies, July 4)

In Seoul, a South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman on July 5 described Cho’s expulsion as “regrettable” and suggested that South Korea was considering retaliating against Russia for the action. (AP, July 5) The South Korean Foreign Ministry also described the expulsion as an “unfriendly” act toward Seoul and said that the Russian ambassador to South Korea would be summoned for an explanation. South Korea’s state-run news agency, meanwhile, quoted ministry officials as saying that Cho’s activities were conducted “within diplomatic boundaries and were not of any harm to Russia’s national interests.” (UPI, July 6) South Korean officials also expressed regret that Moscow had chosen to order the expulsion–and to do it publicly–without first consulting South Korean authorities. (AP, July 5; UPI, July 6)

Cho’s expulsion is the first such diplomatic incident between the two countries since they established diplomatic relations in 1990. (Xinhua, July 5) The spy row comes despite gradually improving ties between Seoul and Moscow, which warming has accompanied Moscow’s decision to distance itself from its Cold War-era ally North Korea. In early June of this year, Russian First Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Mikhailov and a military delegation completed a six-day visit to South Korea–a trip intended as part of an effort to improve military-to-military contacts between the two countries. Moscow, however, has reportedly also hoped to interest the South Koreans in purchases of Russian military hardware. Moscow has already supplied South Korea with more than US$200 million in armaments as partial repayment for Russian debts to Seoul. But Moscow would like to become a more important supplier of arms to South Korea, whose arms market has to date been dominated by the United States. (Russky telegraf, June 3) (See also Monitor, June 5)