PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea's security agency said Thursday it arrested a South Korean spy in Pyongyang who intended to rally anti-government forces, a claim that intelligence officials in Seoul quickly called ridiculous and groundless.
Pyongyang regularly accuses Seoul and Washington of working to sabotage its secretive, authoritarian system — statements that outside analysts see as a way to strengthen domestic support for leader Kim Jong Un — but specific claims that an individual spy has been captured, especially before an investigation is concluded, are unusual.
The few details in the statement by an unidentified spokesman for the North's state security ministry couldn't be independently verified. North Korea said the South Korean man confessed to illegally entering the country, but there was no statement from him and there were no details about his age, name, condition or legal representation.
The North's claim comes amid worsening ties. The Koreas had turned to tentative diplomacy after a spring that saw a near-daily barrage of threats, including North Korean warnings of nuclear strikes on Seoul and Washington. But tension has renewed since North Korea canceled planned reunions in September of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
The North Korean security ministry said that the South Korean initially said he was a Chinese citizen living in North Korea and then said he was a citizen of another country.
The initial investigation found that the South Korean spent six years in a country bordering North Korea using religion to disguise anti-North Korea espionage activities, the North's statement alleged. It said the investigation was intensifying, without elaborating.
Many South Korean missionaries work with North Korean defectors and border-crossers in China. Kenneth Bae, an American missionary and tour operator, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after being arrested for alleged hostile acts in North Korea a year ago. North Korea officially recognizes freedom of religion, but it tolerates only sanctioned churches, and activists and defectors call it one of the world's worst places for religion.
An official with South Korea's spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, speaking on condition of anonymity because of office rules, said the North was making "a ridiculous argument. It's groundless."
AP writer Youkyung Lee contributed to this story from Seoul, South Korea.