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Suspected covert Chinese outpost sparks push for S. Korea ‘spy bill’

Han River (Matt Kieffer/WikiCommons)
September 23, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The Han River parks located in the heart of Seoul have been an urban oasis for locals for decades. A Friday night in September was no exception as people kickstarted their weekend jogging and cycling, while families enjoyed a picnic meal watching the sun set.

To enhance the city’s charm, the Seoul metropolitan government staged a drone ballet above the Han River. As Korean landmarks lit up the sky and cast a shimmer on the river, one anomaly stood out: a somber floating restaurant that was out of sync with the city’s vibrant pulse.

“It’s still there,” said a young female jogger in her twenties. She declined a formal interview with Radio Free Asia, but remarked to her jogging companion: “It’s that covert police outpost of China.”

On Naver, South Korea’s largest internet portal, the restaurant is very much in operation.  However, on-site, the three-story glass building was shrouded in darkness, with barricades erected in front of the entrance to keep curious bystanders away. “Closed for safety inspections and renovations,” one sign read; “No unauthorized entry,” warned another.

From a distance and under the dim light illuminating a corner of the building’s ground floor, a figure was seen pacing back and forth. The interior looked less of a restaurant than an office, with papers and notebooks arranged on shelves. Over three hours that Friday evening, three individuals were seen to be on a rotational watch. 

The restaurant Dongbang Myeongju, Korean translation for China’s Oriental Pearl Tower – the namesake of Shanghai’s TV tower, is currently on the radar of the South Korean authorities. It is suspected of operating as a secret Chinese police station, engaging in covert activities and acting as a hub for Chinese intelligence operations. 

“There are some signs that its staff are involved in gathering some sensitive information in ROK,” a person familiar with the relevant investigation told RFA, referring to South Korea by its official name. The person, a South Korean authority, declined to elaborate. 

According to South Korean media, including The Korea Economic Daily, authorities have reached an internal conclusion that the restaurant had performed illegal consular duties  – including repatriating wanted Chinese nationals in South Korea to China. 

The accusations escalated when the restaurant organized events for the Chinese Embassy in South Korea, such as various award ceremonies for Chinese nationals. The restaurant also allegedly operated separate chambers within its premises for “VIPs”, serving as a safe house for China’s agents in Seoul. 

China had dismissed these accusations. The Chinese embassy in Seoul expressed its “strong regret” on South Korean media for disseminating groundless rumors. The accusations are “completely outrageous, fabricated, intentional slur, and it’s disrespectful,” the spokesman of the embassy said in a statement, urging those media to stop “tarnishing China’s reputation and exacerbate the public opinion of Sino-South Korea relations”. 

Wang Haijun, the proprietor of the restaurant, had also denied allegations. 

South Korea’s security concerns 

As the allegations thickened, there was little authorities could do under current regulations. But the scandal raised questions about the potential for espionage and covert operations in South Korea, underscoring the need for heightened vigilance and security measures.

“Evidence clearly indicates the venue wasn’t just another restaurant,” the South Korean authority claimed, declining to provide details of evidence due to the sensitivity of the matter.

While the claims from each side remain largely disputable, China has long been accused of operating illegal overseas police stations overseas. The Madrid-based human rights campaigner Safeguard Defenders says that China is operating at least 102 Overseas Police Service Stations in 53 different countries.

Most countries could prosecute strongly when the evidence clearly indicates the covert operations. In April, two men were arrested in New York for conspiring to act as agents for China and obstructing justice by destroying evidence of their communications with China’s Ministry of Public Security. “The defendants worked together to establish the first overseas police station in the United States,” the U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement.

However, in South Korea, an arrest and prosecution are unfeasible, even if the investigations provide solid evidence of the alleged activities.

It lacks the relevant laws to prosecute.

Legal constraints 

This constraint traces back to South Korea’s existing criminal legislation, which restricts the definition of national security threats to activities that solely benefit “the enemy state” – North Korea. Consequently, actions that might advantage other countries, like China, cannot be prosecuted under the existing  law, a wartime penal code enacted since 1953.

The South Korean police therefore could only send Wang Haijun to the Seoul Eastern District Prosecutors in April on charges of violating both the Food Sanitation Act and the Outdoor Advertisement Act. 

Wang’s case underscores a significant challenge for South Korea, which is limited by legal avenues to prosecute individuals should similar incidents arise in the future.

To close the gap, South Korean legislators are working to broaden the scope of national security to encompass those who illegally benefit “foreign countries or groups of foreigners.” 

Towards a comprehensive ‘spy bill’

In other words, a new spy bill in the making to deal with increased espionage so that the likes of Dongbang Myeongju and kind would not just get away with food or advertising rule violations.

“Given the evolving complexities of the international landscape, the facets of past espionage have undergone significant changes, evolving into a more comprehensive security concept,” Cho Soo-jin, a lawmaker with People Power Party who proposed the bill, told RFA. 

The revised definition advocated by the conservatives, including Cho, includes specific activities as explicitly as the “collection, disclosure, transmission, and brokerage” of information that are secret to foreign entities. This could enable South Korea to prosecute people like Wang under the new bill, should there be solid evidence.  

The bill has drawn a rare widespread consensus among South Korean lawmakers, who are typically divided on most issues.

In fact, lawmakers from the progressive Democratic Party have initiated the very early versions of the bill, from September 2022, which expands the scope to cover foreign countries. The bill then developed to include foreign entities in November 2022, and also incorporate industrial espionage in January 2023. 

However, it was only in February this year that the lawmakers of the conservative People Power Party led by Cho, further amended the draft to add clauses that set a foundation to prosecute foreign agent’s information collection activities in South Korea. 

“Until now, foreign spies, and paid domestic agents, have had no legal basis for prosecution, even if they collect state secrets in South Korea,” a person familiar with the bill’s amendment told RFA. The bill would enable “active prevention” and “curb espionage activities”, providing a legal basis for prosecution, the person added. 

Shadows of an authoritarian past

Even as both conservative and progressive lawmakers recognized the need for the revised bill, South Korea’s authoritarian legacy is like a leash holding the country back. 

Its tumultuous history with authoritarian rule had been scarred by instances where its spy agency was weaponized to suppress dissent and monitor opposition figures by those in power to maintain their authority. 

Such practices involved surveillance, illegal detention, and at times, torture of political opponents. The memory of these abuses still casts a long shadow over contemporary South Korean politics, making any intelligence-related revisions or decisions a sensitive topic for many.

The impending general election in South Korea in April is also shifting the focus of lawmakers, causing the bill to be sidelined. 

In election run-ups, legislators often prioritize bills related to social overhead capital that have the potential to bolster their chances of being reelected. As such, many parliamentary insiders have indicated to RFA that the bill’s passage this year seems less probable, despite experts’ pressing of its urgency.

“Such concerns surrounding our diplomacy and security should be an avenue for bipartisan collaboration for both conservatives and progressives,” said Cheon Seong-whun, a geopolitical strategist, a former security strategy secretary for South Korea’s presidential office. “While we can’t forget the powerful’s misuse of the National Intelligence Service’s power, it’s in the past. It’s time for us to move forward and progress.

“If reaching a consensus proves challenging, we should also contemplate broadening the scope of our National Security Act and expedite its passage.”

Many other democracies are enacting similar bills, including the United Kingdom in July. 

“We’ve risen to become one of the world’s top ten economies, and North Korea surely isn’t our sole national security concern,” Cho, the lawmaker, said. “I anticipate the bill to be passed promptly.”