SEOUL — A sociologist was handed a seven-year prison sentence Tuesday on charges of spreading North Korean ideology, in a case that many here have criticized as an anachronism harking back to the Cold War period.
Song Du Yul, 59, a naturalized German citizen who lectured at the University of Muenster, returned to his native South Korea in September after 37 years in exile. He was arrested soon after under the country's national security law, which bans pro-communist activities.
The Central District Court in Seoul said Song deserved a "heavy sentence" for "recklessly spreading the ideology" of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, the nation's current leader, in South Korea.
The court said the case was not merely a matter of free speech but that the sociologist had led a double life that made him, in effect, a North Korean agent.
It was charged that Song -- using the alias Kim Chul Soo -- secretly served as the 23rd-highest-ranking member of the North Korean Politburo.
The prosecution said Song visited North Korea about 20 times between 1973 and 2003 and received about $100,000 to do North Korea's bidding overseas.
Song has denied being a North Korean agent, but says he frequently visited the North as part of his academic work to study the nation and its ideology. He said he joined the ruling Korean Workers' Party to ease entry into the country.
"It is a very dark and gloomy day for South Korean democracy," the sociologist's son, Song Rinn, said at a news conference Tuesday. He called the prison sentence "very shocking ... in a 21st century democracy."
Lawyers said they would appeal.
Song's prosecution has drawn criticism from European intellectuals, including Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gunter Grass and the noted philosopher Juergen Habermas, who is considered Song's mentor.
South Korean supporters of Song say it is ludicrous to prosecute him for pro-North activities in an era when South Korean officials regularly travel to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and North Koreans are frequently invited south of the border.
They say Song, who left his homeland during the military dictatorship of the 1960s, returned with the belief that the political climate had changed and he would not be prosecuted.
The allegations that Song was in the Politburo came from Hwang Jang Yop, a high-ranking North Korean official who defected to the South in 1997. Song's case was also hurt by video footage from Pyongyang that appeared to show him weeping at Kim Il Sung's funeral in 1994.