This is not the first time we have touched upon the high-profile trials on the pro-North Korean conspiracy in South Korea involving members of the leftwing United Progressive Party, headed by MP Lee Seok-ki. One would have thought that this case had come to an end, however, the decision by Seoul’s Supreme Court where an appeal had been filed, has made possible further discussions and debates.
Let’s recall the timeline of events. On August 28, 2013 the staff of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) raided the homes and offices of members of the United Progressive Party whose program was in many ways similar to the programs of moderate Western communists.
According to reports by The Korea Herald newspaper, during the raids secret services allegedly found records of party activists’ meetings, during which they discussed the seizure of arms depots and police stations in order “to help North Korea”, and also talked about a terrorist attack against an unspecified oil facility.
According to intelligence agents, they followed Lee and monitored his correspondence and conversations for three years. But public opinion has linked this case with a number of scandals within the National Intelligence Service – investigations and the inevitable reforms would have affected the senior and middle ranking officials of the intelligence service, and the dramatic exposure of North Korean agents in the stronghold of democracy has proved to be very useful for those who wanted to show that the secret services are able to capture real, not fictional spies.
After some time, the records of the revolutionaries’ conniving tactics were made public, and Lee Seok-ki was taken into custody. The defendants in the case did not dispute the accuracy of the accusations, but stated that some were laughable, and others were phrases taken out of context and duly arranged.
On November 5, 2013 the South Korean Cabinet of Ministers decided to direct an inquiry for the dissolution of the party to the Constitutional Court. The South Korean Minister of Justice Hwang Kyo-ahn was quoted as saying: “We came to the conclusion that the objectives and activities of the UPP are contrary to the democratic order.”
On November 12, 2013 Lee Seok-ki and seven other party members were tried by a judge. In the course of 46 court hearings, it was found that Lee Seok-ki was the head of the revolutionary organization “RO”, which was actively developing plans to destroy a variety of strategic facilities in South Korea, attack crucial infrastructure facilities of the country and seize power in the event of a new war on the Korean peninsula. In addition, Lee “kept pro-North Korean materials” and even sang the songs “Red Flag” and “Revolutionary Comrade” banned in South Korea.
Also highlighted was the following: the court found credible the testimony of a certain Mr. Lee, who informed the National Intelligence Service of the plot. Thus, it should be noted that the case against members of the United Progressive Party was instituted not due to results of the prompt work of the National Intelligence Service, as it seemed at first, but on the basis of a tip-off for which the informant received a substantial financial reward.
Also of importance was the fact that long before his election to Parliament in 2012, Lee Seok-Ki already had a conviction for violation of the National Security Law. Back in 2003, he was pardoned, but at present the court took into account his relapse.
On the other hand, evidence of North Korean funding of the underground organization was not found, and this is not mentioned in the court sentence, despite the fact that at one time this received wide media coverage and was presented in a way as if evidence had already been found or was about to be found.
Although many waited for additional evidence, nothing other than the recordings of the secret meetings has been presented.
Also unconfirmed were a number of accusations that were mentioned in the early stages of the investigation, both the planning for sabotage and the organizing of terrorist attacks with the use of dummy weapons, made to look like combat ones.
And although to a sensible audience, the phrase “secretly sang revolutionary songs” almost sounds like “did not applaud sincerely enough during the speech of the Communist leader”, in February 2014 the Administrative Court of the city of Suwon of the Gyeonggi Province found Lee Seok-Ki guilty of violating the National Security Law, and also guilty of preparing and instigating the conspiracy to change the existing political system, and sentenced him to 12 years’ imprisonment and deprivation of civil rights for a period of 10 years. Other activists involved in the case were sentenced to imprisonment for a period of 4 to 7 years and were also deprived of civil rights for the same period.
A harsh sentence was inevitable since the plot “was a real threat to the existence of South Korea and to the norms of freedom and democracy”. The media also reported: “although the plans were not implemented, the organization was a threat to the rule of liberal democracy and to the very existence of the state.”
And now a retrial and a new sentence – Lee Seok-ki has been found guilty of violating the National Security Law. And on August 11, 2014 he was sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment and deprivation of civil rights for a period of seven years. This time the court has not found sufficient evidence of the existence of an anti-state conspiracy and the anti-state organization “RO” (“Revolutionary Organization”). Thus, the Supreme Court has mitigated the punishments of Lee Seok-ki and other activists of the United Progressive Party involved in the case.
The fact that the key point of the judicial decision is highlighted in bold is not accidental, since it had to be recognized and disseminated by the official South Korean press.
And so there was no Revolutionary Organization in the form of a secret society within the party. Neither was there a conspiracy against the State to seize buildings and carry out acts of sabotage. This calls for a number of questions:
• Should Mr. Lee whose information was used to launch the criminal case on conspiracy return the half a million won which he received as a well-deserved reward for social activism? After all, if it turns out that there was no conspiracy, the tip-off was bound to be false? Will Mr Lee be formally charged?
• What is to be done with the recordings which according to the secret services proved that a conspiracy had indeed taken place and constituted the main piece of evidence? Does this mean that this is really a case of phrases taken out of context and duly arranged? Or is this the work of an instigator? Does the secret service have an official explanation?
• What fate awaits the only party actively supporting the expansion of trade union rights and the development of civil society, which was tried to be dismantled by the Constitutional Court? A proven conspiracy can be a reason for such an action, but then again, there was no conspiracy. Maybe apologizes should be presented, not to mention the possibility of restoring the good name of the party?
Does it not seem to the international community that 9 years in prison and the deprivation of civil rights for 7 years for singing North Korean songs and storing pro-North Korean literature is a bit too much? I would risk a guess that if a “democratic activist of contemporary Russia” had been sentenced in a similar way, a storm of publications would have appeared in the Western press, accusing Moscow of the feudal administration of justice and the elimination of the protest movement for ridiculous reasons. However, the news of a similar verdict to Lee Seok-ki caused no uproar.
Perhaps the story is not over yet. But it is very interesting and instructive for our readership in terms of the notion known as double standards. And with all this, can South Korea be seen as a true beacon of democracy.
Konstantin Asmolov, Cand. Sc. (History), is a senior research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”