The northern African nation of Libya has released from detention two South Korean nationals – including one pastor – who were arrested this past summer for their alleged engagement in missionary activities, according to Seoul's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
One of the men, a Protestant pastor identified only by his family name, Koo, had been arrested in June for violating the predominantly Muslim country's religious law, which prohibits the proselytizing of Muslims. The other man, identified by his family name, Jeon, was arrested the following month for aiding in Koo's efforts, which included bringing Christian books and other materials for missionary work into the country.
While South Korea – as the second largest missionary-sending country in the world – is no stranger to situations involving missionary activities, the case in Libya was complicated by the recent expulsion of a South Korean Embassy official who was suspected of collecting information on Libya's leader and other sensitive areas.
Though Seoul denied Libyan allegations that the embassy official was an intelligence agent and claimed the operation was just part of its information gathering on North Korea, Libya suspended operations at its de facto embassy in Seoul, forcing South Korean businessmen to go overseas if they want visas for Libya.
Relations were further strained by the arrest of the pastor and by subsequent media coverage of the country.
Despite the "unsavory" row, South Korea's 30-year-old relationship with Libya was reportedly enough for the latter nation's government and "no backdoor deal" was made, according Seoul's special envoy, lawmaker Lee Sang-deuk, an elder brother of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
"I confess that the negotiation process was painful," Lee told reporters upon arrival at South Korea's Incheon International Airport following his fourth trip to Libya. "But trust that the reputation of Korean businesses earned from Libya and its people in the past three decades helped a lot."
Without elaborating, Lee said he admitted to Seoul's responsibility for the June expulsion incident during his meeting on Thursday with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. He also said the government will take relevant steps to possibly make an apology and to prevent an incident like this from occurring in the future.
"Thanks to Representative Lee Sang-deuk's visits, along with efforts through diplomatic and intelligence channels, we are putting a virtual end to the case," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun to reporters.
"Using this as a lesson, we hope to strengthen economic and personnel exchanges with Libya, which we celebrate 30-years of diplomatic ties with this year," he added.
According to the Foreign Ministry, the two released men were handed over to their families on Saturday evening Libyan time, as South Korean Embassy officials in Tripoli watched. The ministry said Libya is allowing the two to stay in Libya if they want – an option not commonly made available to foreigners accused of missionary activities.
Those suspected of such activities are typically deported.