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S. Korean charity decries Russia’s arrest of pastor

Pastor Baek Kwang-soon was held on espionage charges while working among North Korean escapees in Moscow
 Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov meets with his North Korean counterpart Choe Son Hui in Moscow on Jan. 16.

 Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov meets with his North Korean counterpart Choe Son Hui in Moscow on Jan. 16. (Photo: AFP)

Published: March 15, 2024 10:49 AM GMT
Updated: March 15, 2024 10:59 AM GMT

The head of a South Korean Christian charity whose pastor has been detained in Russia over espionage charges has called the accusations ‘wrongful’ and has blamed political motivation behind the arrest.

Baek Kwang-soon, who is currently detained in Russia, has been doing “missionary work” for Global Love Rice Sharing Foundation, Lee Seon-gu, head of the charity was quoted saying by NK News on March 12.

The foundation helps North Korean escapees in Russia “without inciting defections or encouraging people to defect,” Lee added.

Lee pointed out that the charity was working to clear Baek’s name and alleged that the arrest based on “wrongful accusations” by Russia may have been politically motivated.

“It seems Russia’s backlash might be due to our government’s support for Ukraine, defending freedom and democracy, which might have led to the misunderstanding that our pastors and missionaries are engaging in espionage or intelligence leaking,” Lee alleged.

Baek has been detained at the Lefortovo detention facility in Moscow since late February, Russia’s TASS news agency reported on March 11 citing a law enforcement official in the country.

A Russian court had reportedly extended his detention until June 15 following his first hearing on March 11.

Russia’s law enforcement agency had arrested Baek earlier this year from the Russian Far East city of Vladivostok on charges of handing over classified information to foreign intelligence agencies.

He was later transferred to Moscow for further investigation, TASS reported.

Baek could face up to 20 years in prison if the espionage allegations laid out against him under Article 276 of the Russian criminal code are proven true.

Lee denied the allegations that Baek was engaged in espionage.

“There are all sorts of Russians, Thai, and North Korean workers who are poor people, people in need, and we provide them with clothes, food, and gospel,” Lee emphasized.

Baek had joined the charity three years ago and was tasked with charity and missionary work in Vladivostok, according to Lee, who said he had not had contact with Baek “since early last year,” NK News reported.

White Rock, the tour operating firm that Baek had registered in Vladivostok in March 2020 has been in a loss since 2021, NK News reported citing Russian tax records.

The company was engaging in the sale of textile goods, agricultural work like rice processing, and construction and repair services.

Lee emphasized that the rice processing aligned with the organization’s humanitarian operations across 69 countries that seek to “feed the hungry and clothe those in need.”

Andrei Lankov, a director at Korea Risk Group and professor at Kookmin University, alluded to the possibility that Baek attracted the scrutiny of Russian security forces by trying to help North Korean workers in the Russian Far East defect to South Korea.

“There is a big chance that the pastor must have sought contact with ROK intelligence services if he planned to help North Koreans escape to South Korea because, without their involvement, it would be almost an impossible task, especially now,” Lankov explained.

Lankov also noted that Chinese officials have taken issue with South Korean pastors who work with “not only ethnic Koreans but with the small North Korean refugee community,” NK News reported.

The expert also pointed out that Baek’s attempts to obtain information about North Korea-Russia arms transfers from ethnic Koreans in Russia by combining his “missionary work with information gathering activities,” could have landed him in trouble.

Eric Foley, head of the international non-profit Voice of the Martyrs, noted that missionaries may “fall into trouble when they stray from teaching and preaching the Christian message."

Foley stated that intelligence agencies tend to watch the missionaries more closely than Church leadership.

He said Russian authorities have increased their scrutiny of “missionaries who try to act undercover,” citing a 2016 legislation that specifies penalties and fines for those who work with foreign missionaries, and deportation or prosecution for such pastors.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s embassy in Moscow said it was “providing necessary consular assistance” after it received news on the arrest, but refused additional information due to “an ongoing investigation,” NK News reported.

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