The first point is the completion of “the case of an attempted coup”, following which lawmaker Lee Seok Ki, the alleged leader of the coup, was sentenced to 12 years in jail.
The second point is a new scandal relating to the fact that another case against an alleged North Korean spy collapsed and fell apart, while the level of falsification caused a big scandal in South Korean media.
The third point is another scandal involving South Korean preacher Kim Jung Wook, who was arrested in North Korea, and who was engaged in subversive activities by command of the South Korean security services.
To begin with, let us consider the results of the “case of the coup”. As it was reported by the official media of the RK, 46 hearings were held in this case since November 2013. As a result, the Administrative Court of Suwon found Lee Seok Ki, former lawmaker of the National Assembly from the opposition United Progressive Party, guilty of violating the National Security Act, preparation and incitement of a conspiracy aimed at changing the current political system.
The Court found that Lee Seok Ki not only was the head of the revolutionary organization “RO” that prepared the conspiracy, but also sang songs “The Red Flag” and “The Revolutionary Comrade”, banned in the RK, together with his companions.
In addition, Lee “kept pro-North Korean materials”, and at the meetings of the organization, its participants “considered a plan to destroy various strategic facilities in the RK”.
It is interesting that the news editions specifically noted that: the court found credible the testimony of Mr. Lee, who informed the National Intelligence Service of the conspiracy. Thus, we can note the following. The case against members of the United Progressive Party was instituted not based on the results of the fieldwork of the National Intelligence Service, as it seemed at first, but based on a denunciation, for which its author received a substantial payment.
I remember well the ads that were on every door of subway cars in the 1990s: “We give rewards for information about spies. Call 112. Fixed-rate payments. Fixed-rate is specified in the note”. 100 million wons for a spy, 500 million wons for a secret organization, 300 million wons for a detected spy ship.
In addition to the evidence given by the informer, the investigation allegedly relied on audios recorded at meetings of party activists, where they discussed the seizure of weapons depots and police stations: the conversations were considered credible, although the defense insisted that they were extracted out of their context.
The fact that long before his election to the Parliament in 2012, Lee Seok Ki was convicted for a violation of the National Security Act (NSA) played a certain role. Back in 2003, he was pardoned, but the Court considered this a repeated offence.
On the other hand, although officers of the National Intelligence Service, and the Prosecutor’s Office of the RK, conducted searches at six offices of organizations associated with lawmaker Lee Seok Ki, and even searched the houses of employees, they did not find any evidence of a source funding for the activities of a secret organization. This fact was not mentioned in the verdict, despite the fact that the media used to write quite a lot about the searches, and they presented them in such a way as if the evidence were found or was about to be found.
A number of accusations, made in the early stages of the investigation, also were not confirmed, e.g., planning of sabotage or organization of terrorist attacks using dummy weapons converted into combat arms. However, as I have mentioned already, the fact of the existence of a secret pro-North Korean organization is a sufficient accusation, even if its activities were limited to secret meetings where North Korean revolutionary songs were performed. Especially taking into account the fact that Lee once said that he would convince people to make a revolution in accordance with scientific ideas of Juche.
Moreover, although the “sang revolutionary songs” sounds almost like “did not applaud sincerely enough” for the sensible audience, Lee Seok Ki was sentenced to a 12-year imprisonment and deprivation of his rights (including voting rights) for 10 years. A strict sentence was inevitable, as the conspiracy posed “a real threat to the existence of Korea and norms of freedom and democracy”. Other activists, involved in the case, were sentenced to imprisonment ranging from 4 to 7 years, and the deprivation of rights for the same period.
Continuing the discussion on the focus and methods of South Korean intelligence agencies, let us analyze the “case of the scandal with fake evidence”, which was reported by a number of media at the beginning of March 2014.
It all started as a high-profile case with denouncement of 34-year-old Yu U Son, another spy from North Korea, who sneaked into the country under the guise of a defector and worked at Seoul City Hall. It turns out that after naturalization in the RK, the secret agent Yu visited North Korea though China several times, where he received espionage assignments. When Yu said that he visited only to attend his mother’s funeral, at first intelligence officers provided testimony of several people, including his sister, and then they provided the registration documents of Chinese authorities, which confirmed that Yu was in the DPRK more times than he told.
This was a high-profile case before the elections to local authority bodies, which are to be held in early June. The post of Mayor of Seoul was contested by its current Mayor, who is an opposition statesman, and Chung Mong Joon, a candidate from the ruling party, the head of his faction and a famous “hawk” (in particular, he urged South Korea to acquire a nuclear bomb in response to the threat from North Korea). Naturally, the blow, against an employee of City Hall, who turned to be a spy, is actually a blow against his superiors who failed to notice, and possibly even lured a spy from DPRK.
However, on February 14, 2014, a group of lawyers promoting the democratization of society brought charges that the evidence in this case could have been fabricated, and a big scandal broke out. At first, Yu’s sister retracted her testimony saying that she had been threatened. Other witnesses also confused their facts, and one of them admitted that he was a drug addict and therefore he doubted the credibility of his own words. Finally, the Embassy of China officially stated that the documents were a fake.
Intelligence agencies tried to counterattack by calling an informant from among the ethnic Koreans in China, but in an interview with investigators from the prosecutor’s office, he also admitted that he had provided fake data “on instructions from the center”, and then tried to commit suicide, but he was saved. Moreover, it was found that an intelligence officer, who worked undercover in the Consulate General of Korea in Shenyang (China), committed forgery “due to excessive pressure from the leadership”.
In other words, the intelligence agencies wanted to denounce Yu, but they lacked evidence so much, that orders were given to fabricate it. The intelligence agencies tried to shift the blame for the whole story on informants and aides, who wanted to deceive the leadership, but these stood their ground firmly, saying that they were forced to commit forgery by “curators from Seoul”.
As a result, this was no less a scandal than the “case of trolls in uniform”. President Pak Geun Hye has already expressed her “deep regret”. The opposition demanded resignations and an investigation involving an independent prosecutor, appointed by the Parliament. Members of the ruling party also noted the need for a detailed investigation, saying that the methods of work of the security services were “a great shock” for the entire country. The leadership of the intelligence agencies issues a statement, where they “apologized to the people for the inconvenience and scandal”, and promised to do everything possible to prevent such events from occurring again. However, the prosecutor’s office began an investigation, during which its officers searched and seized documents at the headquarters of the intelligence agency, and in the intelligence unit that investigated the case of Yu.
This is the third such case in the history of this security service (the second, incidentally, was in connection with the “case of trolls in uniform”) and a number of officers were prohibited from leaving the country. The investigation is trying to find out who gave the command to fabricate evidence, and to which extent the senior management of the intelligence agencies was involved in the scandal.
At the same time, it turned out that in fact, Yu was not a North Korean refugee, but he was a Korean from China, who had previously attempted to seek asylum in the UK, and had a suspended criminal sentence. Now it does not matter whether the intelligence offices were going to slander an innocent person, building on the success after the “detection of an anti-government conspiracy in parliament”. Now they are reminded of all the other failures we mentioned in previous articles, and major reforms are demanded, fortunately, the new director Jae Jung We can already say that “it all happened before him”, and yet the general level of fakes makes us wonder how many of them applied in previous stories.
Finally, let us talk about the “case of Pastor Kim”. On November 7, 2013, the DPRK authorities announced the arrest of a South Korean spy, who allegedly arrived in the country “to destabilize the situation in society”. As reported by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the detainee was a member of the National Intelligence Service of the Republic of Korea. First, he posed as a Chinese citizen, but later he admitted that he had illegally arrived from a third country. As was shown by a preliminary investigation, the detainee had been carrying out espionage activities in the neighboring countries for six years, working under the guise of a religious preacher.
The National Intelligence Service of the Republic of Korea called the accusations of espionage absurd, but in one of our previous articles, we have already touched on issues of cooperation between South Korean security agencies and radical Protestant NGOs, engaged in subversive activities in North Korea. Moreover, the fact of the detention was confirmed by the church members themselves, making the correction that the detained 50-year-old Kim Jung Wook was not a spy but a “missionary of the Presbyterian Church, in charge for assisting DPRK residents, who were arrested and were having problems”.
Then, on February 27, 2014, Kim Jung Wook appealed to the leadership of the DPRK to pardon him and spoke to reporters, including from foreign countries. Kim talked a lot, but the main thing was that he was really an agent of the intelligence services of RK, who on October 7, 2013, illegally crossed the border into China and North Korea on a smuggler’s vessel, and then, when he got to Pyongyang, he was arrested during a document check. The missionary said that he had acted on orders of the South Korean intelligence service, which paid him thousands of dollars. According to him, he organized meetings between his acquaintances in the DPRK and South Korean intelligence officers. He also admitted that he spoke to people, calling on them to demolish the monuments to the Kim dynasty and build Christian churches in their places. Moreover, he noted that his activities were part of the special services plan, and there were other missionaries of this type in the border areas of China and the DPRK.
Kim “believed that the political system in the North could be collapsed through religious propaganda”, and his goal was to overthrow the existing government and the political system, as well as to build a “Christian country” in the North. He explained to his congregation that if churches were built in places of monuments to the Kim dynasty, there would appear 500 secret congregations throughout the country, the regime would fall and be replaced by a country blessed by the Lord.
To do this, he recruited supporters, using the money given by the secret service, and founded an underground church in Dandong, a border Chinese city, where he not only worked with the citizens of North Korea, but also received confidential information from them, which was then transmitted to the secret services. He also asked them to write down their stories, which were then set out as evidence.
During the service, he insulted the political system of the DPRK and demanded from the congregation to participate in anti-North Korean prayers, or write stories that depicted it in an unfavorable light. He also demanded that the congregation participate “in a dissident crowd scene” when South Korean or American visitors came to the city.
According to Kim, he rented a house, which served not only as an underground church, but also as a place where citizens of the DPRK could watch more than 100 channels of South Korean cable TV, including pornography. There was also a library of anti-North Korean literature, especially religious magazines, containing stories of defectors about the horrible life in the North. The congregation was obliged to read these, and publicly discuss the stories. Kim described the techniques of group control and brainwashing, to which he subjected his followers, and that these were not very different from those existing in destructive sects.
There are also unchecked reports that the North Koreans were lured to these activities, as to a regular church service, and then they were presented with a fait accompli: if you have already participated in anti-North Korean event, you and your family will be treated as criminals, and there is no way back. If you do not follow the instructions of the priest, he will find a way to let the DPRK know about your behavior.
Kim told the press in detail how he crossed the border, and about the purpose of his luggage, which consisted of Bibles, memory cards, hundreds of MP3-players, medicines, mini- camcorders and CD discs with pornography. On the memory cards, he stored religious literature, films about the role played by the Christian church in the overthrow of communism in Eastern Europe, and South Korean soap operas, made in the tradition of “anti-communist drama”. Cameras were designed to photograph closed places in Pyongyang, as well as to record “acts of Christian resistance”, and pornography was intended to encourage especially active members, or to be sold on the black market to make money, or to make free copies to attract new members to the sect. Apparently, the situation where people were invited to watch porn, and then they found themselves on an anti-North Korean activity, had been so successful in China, that they decided to use the same scheme in the DPRK.
In addition, Kim was caught in human trafficking, under the guise of transportation of refugees from North to South through third countries, including Laos. Thus, in October 2008, for a fee, he helped four defectors from the North to escape to a third country. Unfortunately, the fate of these people is unknown, though if they were real refugees, he could honestly tell people about their fate, even without revealing their names. He also took out Chinese citizens through third countries to South Korea, presenting them as North Korean refugees, and he did this for a fee.
Of course, one cannot fully trust this statement, made in the style of a public penance, but the author recollects other stories, related to the activities of such missionaries in China, and the methods that were used by the marginal South Korean Protestant sects in the 1990s in Russia. In other words, the information does not need to be divided by 10, but by two, and maximum by 5. Especially as the main content of Kim’s confession was repeated in the Western media, whose representatives attended the press conference.
In addition, it is not worth talking about the brutal oppression of any missionaries or civil activists. The North Korean policy on this issue is clearly visible in the recent story about the citizen of Australia, John Short, who formally was engaged in banned religious propaganda, displaying prominently the Bible and doing this even on the birthday of Kim Jong-il on February 16, 2014. The elderly missionary was arrested, but after a formal apology (albeit made in the North Korean style), he was deported from the country at the beginning of March 2014. The same fate befell Melville Newman, an American veteran, who, while traveling in North Korea blurted out that he was a military advisor to the Department of the Army of the Republic of Korea, which led a guerrilla war in the territory of the North. In October 2013, he was arrested, and in December, he was deported.
The author is not sure whether Kim will be pardoned, most likely, his fate will be similar to the fate of Kenneth Bae, to whom we dedicated one of our previous materials. Some local companions of Kim were less fortunate – they were shot, and we now understand why in the notices of repression in North Korea, Christian activity is connected with pornography and its spreading. We also understand how some of the heartbreaking stories of North Korean life appear, and why some “refugees from the DPRK” speak a dialect different from that of North Korea.
In the Internet, when comparing the North and the South, the argument that in a democratic and civilized Republic of Korea, the clumsy methods, used by the intelligence service or fabrication of evidence, or political persecution under false pretenses are impossible, is very common. However, all the above stories tell us a different story, and we will continue to monitor the high-profile cases of this kind, and the proposed reform of intelligence that might bring it to the standards of a civilized democratic country.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.