An alleged North Korean spying ring in South Korea is under investigation by prosecutors. It is the first such major espionage case in more than a decade and is sending shock waves through Seoul's political establishment. Police have arrested five people and are questioning others, including opposition party and labor union officials.
Prosecutors say those under investigation for allegedly spying for North Korea includes academics, politicians, others connected to political parties and labor union officials.
Authorities claim the suspects were part of an underground political group called Wangjaesan, which is the name of a mountain North Koreans consider sacred.
Professor Emeritus Yoo Sung-yeol of the government-run Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security says the political mood in South Korea has changed since the Sunshine Policy of the two previous liberal administrations which engaged North Korea.
◆ Stiff Penalties
Yoo says under the current conservative administration of President Lee Myung-bak, there is a much harder line and those trying to assist Pyongyang can find themselves facing spying charges.
Officials of the opposition Democratic Party say the case has political overtones and may be designed to weaken them prior to the start of next year's legislative and presidential elections.
The DP is hoping to wrest power from the Grand National Party of President Lee Myung-bak. He began his five-year term in 2008 and under the current law he cannot run for a second term.
◆ Political Connection?
Lee Yong-sub, a spokesman for the Democratic Party, says the Wangjaesan underground group has no connection to the party. And he says those who have been arrested have no relationship with the DP.
Among the five arrested for violating the national security law is a one-time dissident who was an aide to Democratic Party politician Lim Chae-jung. Lim served as speaker of the National Assembly from 2006 to 2008.
Media reports say a number of politicians of the minor leftwing Democratic Labor Party are under investigation. Some party members have been previously convicted or indicted for North Korean espionage.
◆ Spy Ring Origins
Prosecutors say the Wangjaesan organization was set up on orders of the North Korean Workers' Party and run by Office 225, which is in charge of North Korea's sleeper agents and spies residing in the South.
A prime suspect arrested in the current case, identified only as "Kim" and head of an information technology company, is alleged to have set up the clandestine group. Prosecutors say he has made numerous overseas trips since 1994, mostly to Japan and China, to rendezvous with North Korean spies.