A Korean man held for suspected credit card fraud has been providing millions of yen in total to individuals in South Korea, investigative sources said Wednesday. Police believe he was a spy handler for North Korean agents.
On Tuesday, the Public Security Bureau of the Metropolitan Police Department arrested Pak Chae Hun, 49, on suspicion of illegally obtaining a credit card and using it for online purchases. It also alleged he was engaged in espionage activities to indoctrinate people in South Korea and China with North Korean ideology.
Pak is a former associate professor of Korea University, a pro-Pyongyang school based in Tokyo.
Japan is particularly sensitive to espionage by North Korea, as the latter’s operatives have been blamed for the abduction of Japanese citizens to serve as language teachers for spies.
Japan also has a large population of residents with Korean ancestry, the descendants of people from the Korean Peninsula who either immigrated to Japan or were brought as forced laborers when Tokyo controlled the region as a colony from 1910 to 1945.
The allegations first came to light last June when investigators raided Pak’s home. However, police have said there is no provision in the criminal code to charge him with espionage.
Investigators suspect Pak was giving orders to agents in South Korea from Japan and providing them with cash and cards that would allow them to withdraw money from ATMs abroad.
They believe Pak was recruited by North Korea’s intelligence agency around 2000 and was subsequently placed in charge of its operations in Japan.
Pak, a resident of Nerima Ward, Tokyo, was arrested for purchasing six computer peripherals from a Tokyo-based online shopping company using a credit card he obtained using a fake name and birthday.
Pak was quoted by investigators as saying he does not have a clear memory of the incident. Before his arrest, he told Kyodo News that he knows nothing about alleged financial impropriety.
The Public Security Bureau searched his home last June 10 on a separate fraud charge and found written instructions and encrypted email messages from North Korea’s spy agency, the so-called Office 225, on his computer.
The emails showed that Pak was receiving orders from Office 225 and was relaying the instructions to pro-Pyongyang South Korean agents and North Korean agents in China. He would then report back to the spy agency, police sources said.
Pak relayed the orders in untraceable emails and telephone calls. He would also on occasion travel to China to meet with agents in person, the sources said.
The instructions included assessing how elections would turn out and contacting left-wing groups in South Korea, apparently to recruit sympathizers, they said.
Public Security Bureau investigators said Pak served as assistant director of Korea University’s school of business administration and was also vice chairman of an organization affiliated with the pro-Pyongyang group Chongryon, otherwise known as the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan.
A day after the search, he quit his post at the university and other posts related to Chongryon.
One official of the organization, which serves as North Korea’s de facto embassy in Japan, condemned the timing of the arrest.
“Arresting him right before the Feb. 16 birthday of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il gives me the feeling that it was political in nature,” said the Chongryon official.
“He was known as an enthusiastic educator. I can’t believe he would be engaged in (espionage).”
North Korean spies have long been believed to be active in Japan.
Pyongyang admitted in 2002 that it had kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to train its spies in Japanese language and customs.
It allowed five of the abductees to return to Japan and said, without producing evidence, that the eight others are dead.
The issue is a highly charged one in Japan, where there are suspicions that perhaps dozens of other people were abducted.