President Yoon Suk-yeol
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol tours NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in April 2023. Image: NASA

South Korea alleges spies messaged North Korean handlers via YouTube comments

South Korea has charged four trade union leaders with spying for North Korea in a plot that involved the accused allegedly communicating with their handlers by leaving coded comments on obscure YouTube videos.

Prosecutors on Thursday alleged that senior members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) had been instructed to photograph military bases and use their union positions to foment anti-American and anti-Japanese sentiments.

According to South Korean cable television news channel YTV, the alleged spies — who have not yet been named but were described as former and current executives of the KCTU — used elaborate tradecraft to signal for meetings with their handlers.

Prosecutors say the suspects have been accused of several violations of the country’s strict National Security Act. The act states that providing military or state secrets to North Korea is punishable by either capital punishment or imprisonment for life.

The men, aged between 48 and 54, allegedly met with North Korean operatives in Cambodia and Vietnam between 2017 and 2019 where they were given instructions to wait in front of landmarks before signaling whether a contact would be made.

The signals included opening a water bottle and taking a sip at exactly 10 o’clock to confirm that everything was OK. If their North Korean contact was seen lighting a cigarette, it was a warning they were being tailed, prosecutors said.

The meetings were arranged via a YouTube video titled “Tutorial: How to open Yamaha NVX 155 without key,” according to NK News. The union executives’ comments would include key words to covertly describe their situation, for instance including the word “uphill” to indicate they were struggling to contact their handlers.

Political backdrop

The charges risk inciting political controversy in South Korea, where the conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol’s administration has been seen to be increasing investigations of alleged links between senior opposition figures and North Korean intelligence.

The KCTU, which has more than a million members in South Korea, is generally considered to be politically aligned with the center-left Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), which had been in government until last year.

During the presidential elections in 2022, Yoon Suk-yeol received 48.56% of the vote against his DPK opponent, Lee Jae-myung, who received 47.83% — the thinnest margin in South Korea’s history.

The DPK has described the charges against the NCTU executives as being politically motivated and compared them to the policies of Gen. Chun Doo-hwan, the right-wing military dictator who governed South Korea until 1987.

When in government, the DPK pursued an “anti-corruption campaign” into the country’s National Intelligence Service that led to several of the agency’s former directors being convicted of diverting clandestine budget funds to the president at the time, conservative Park Geun-hye, for bribes.

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Alexander Martin

Alexander Martin

is the UK Editor for Recorded Future News. He was previously a technology reporter for Sky News and is also a fellow at the European Cyber Conflict Research Initiative.