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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Protests Seoul Expulsion

The spat threatens to cast a pall over gradually improving ties between the two countries.

A diplomatic feud between South Korea and Russia escalated Wednesday when the Kremlin filed an angry protest over South Korea's decision to expel a senior Russian diplomat from Seoul.

The spat threatened to cast a pall over gradually improving ties between two countries that only opened diplomatic relations in 1990 after a decades-long Cold War freeze.

Early Wednesday, South Korea declared Oleg Abramkin, a first secretary in Russia's Seoul embassy, persona non grata in connection with "activities that go against his status as a diplomat" -- the standard formula for spying. Seoul gave Abramkin, who had served in South Korea for four years, 72 hours to leave the country.

Abramkin's expulsion appeared to be in retaliation for the arrest and subsequent eviction from Russia four days earlier of Cho Sung-woo, a South Korean diplomat accused of passing on to Seoul classified documents that he obtained from a Russian Foreign Ministry contact.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin on Wednesday called South Korean Ambassador Lee In-ho to the Foreign Ministry headquarters on Moscow's Smolenskaya Ploshchad where he told her that the eviction was "unprovoked" and "absolutely inadequate."

"Karasin told Ms. Lee that Russia takes a harshly negative view of Seoul's decision to expel Abramkin," Foreign Ministry spokesman Valery Nesterushkin said in a telephone interview.

Seoul has so far issued no response to Karasin's protest. A South Korean Embassy spokesman, Lee Sok-bab, would say only that Karasin "expressed disappointment" in his interview with the South Korean ambassador.

"The general atmosphere of the meeting cannot be described as very friendly," the embassy spokesman said.

South Korea itself was piqued by Russia's handling of Cho's expulsion from Moscow.

Seoul said it had not been informed of Cho's expulsion in advance, only learning of the incident from news reports.

Moscow television last weekend broadcast tapes of Cho receiving documents from a Russian source.

Cho's contact was later identified as Valentin Moiseyev, the deputy chief of the Foreign Ministry's first Asian department.

Moiseyev is now in jail and may be charged with treason later this month. He faces a 12-year to 20-year prison term if convicted.

Moscow accused Cho of trying to recruit officials inside the Russian Foreign Ministry to spy for South Korea.

During the Cold War, Moscow was a close ally of North Korea and had no official ties with Seoul, which was supported by the United States.

Russia gradually changed its attitude to Seoul after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It formalized relations with Seoul in 1990. The two sides also began to gradually improved their trade ties.

Some political analysts suggest, however, that relations between Moscow and Seoul hit a snag when Russia was excluded from a four-member council that is trying to make peace between North and South Korea.

The analysts add that Moscow has been disappointed with relatively low levels of South Korean investment in Russia.

"We have reached a period of stagnation between Russia and South Korea," said Dmitry Trenin, deputy director of the Moscow Carnegie Center.

Trenin added the spy feud was limited to feuding South Korean and Russian counter-intelligence agencies, and should not affect the countries' overall policy towards each other.

"I think the Russian counter-intelligence agents became upset that the South Koreans began acting too brazenly," Trenin said.

"Most likely, this scandal will go away," he said. "It should not seriously affect diplomatic relations."