Since being arrested and charged with espionage last January, Yoo Woo-seong has figured as the main character in what is arguably South Korea’s biggest spy-case in recent years.
Yoo, originally from North Korea, is accused by the South’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) of having systematically handed personal information about more than 200 defectors living in the South to North Korean authorities – coveted information for a regime known for punishing the families of escapees.
The case has featured a highly publicized courtroom drama between Yoo and his sister, two suicide-attempts by NIS operatives, and claims that the South Korean spy-agency forged evidence against Yoo. Originally acquitted of espionage charges last year, prosecutors launched an appeal late last year based on new evidence. A final verdict is now expected in late April.
“Yes, it sounds like a movie. And I never stop being surprised by the fact that I’m actually in it,” Yoo, who denies the allegations, told NK News last week.
Yoo, 34, came to South Korea in 2004, and after graduating from Seoul’s prestigious Yonsei University he went on to work as a welfare coordinator for North Korean refugees with the Seoul Metropolitan Government. Yoo was also an English-language student with the British Council in Seoul. In a country where refugees from the North often struggle in adapting , those who know Yoo say he was seen as a role model.
“Yes, it sounds like a movie. And I never stop being surprised by the fact that I’m actually in it”
The main evidence against him in last year’s trial originally came from an unlikely source – testimony by his sister. The spying charges fell apart in August, however, as she retracted her statements, claiming they had been forced during six months of interrogations in solitary confinement.
“When I was in jail and heard what she had said, I became very frustrated. At the time we couldn’t meet or communicate with each other, since we were held separately,” Yoo said.
While cleared of spying, Yoo was found guilty of concealing his identity when he first came to the South. Part of a small group of ethnic Chinese North Koreans, Yoo was a Chinese passport-holder at the time he applied for citizenship in the South, but did not inform immigration officials of this, as it would have ruined his prospects for South Korean citizenship.
Yoo said he considered himself Korean, having been born and raised in North Korea, and that staying in China was not an option when he decided to leave the North. “I chose to come here, looking for freedom and a better life,” he said.
He received a one-year suspended sentence and was ordered to pay back the 25 million Korean won (about $24,000) he had been given in settlement support by the South Korean government.
Among new evidence brought by prosecutors for the ongoing second trial were travel documents, allegedly issued by Chinese authorities, showing that Yoo made three trips to North Korea after having settled as a refugee in the South. Prosecutors claim he made the trips to deliver information to his North Korean handlers. Yoo claims he visited North Korea only once after coming to the South – in 2006, to attend his mother’s funeral.
The travel documents have recently become the focus of a parallel investigation into whether they were forged by the NIS. In February, Chinese authorities said that they had never issued such documents to South Korean investigators. On March 5, a civilian NIS informant involved in obtaining the documents unsuccessfully attempted suicide by slitting his throat, leaving a note where he confessed to having assisted the NIS in the matter. On March 23, another NIS operative under investigation was found unconscious in his car from carbon monoxide poisoning.
On March 31, formal indictments were brought against the informant and another NIS agent on charges of “forging private documents, using forged documents, fabricating evidence for a plot, and using fabricated evidence,” the Hankyoreh reported.
The NIS denies any involvement in falsifying the documents, saying they were obtained through an external partner.
Only a day before the second trial was set to end on March 28, prosecutors dropped the travel documents as evidence and the proceedings were extended, delaying the announcement of the final verdict to late April. New witnesses have also been summoned by prosecutors to testify that Yoo’s own travel documents may have been forged, and that he had been observed in North Korea during times when he denies having visited the country.
“If found guilty – for the second time – he faces potential annulment of his South Korean citizenship”
A verdict on the charge of concealing his Chinese citizenship is still to be decided in the ongoing trial.
If found guilty – for the second time – he faces potential annulment of his South Korean citizenship. He could be deported, in which case, he said, he doesn’t know what he will do.
“The Chinese have already said that I forfeited the right to Chinese protection when I applied for South Korean citizenship in 2004,” he said. China does not allow dual citizenships and passport-holders who voluntarily obtain second citizenships automatically get their Chinese passports annulled.
Yoo said there is a possibility he might seek asylum in a third country.
As for the spy charges, he could choose to confess, significantly reducing any sentence that would be handed down. Several defendants have done so in the past, only to restart the process years later and be exonerated.
“They told my sister that this would be the best for everyone, including myself,” Yoo said. Still, he appears unwilling to confess to something he denies doing.
“When I worked for the Seoul Metropolitan Government I worked a lot with North Korean refugees. If I were to confess it would mean that all the work I have done was a complete falsehood. I can’t accept that,” he said.
Picture: Ole Jakob Skåtun
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