19.08.2021 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Beginning of a New Spy Scandal in South Korea

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Moon Jae-in’s administration and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea face a new political threat after it was revealed that a group of activists accused of spying for the DPRK had repeatedly contacted Moon and the party even before he was elected president.

The conservative bloc is already calling the incident a “spy scandal,” demanding an explanation from the government and suggesting that the issue could cause a stir in the upcoming presidential election scheduled for next March.

The Cheongju District Court in North Chungcheong Province, 140 kilometers south of Seoul, issued arrest warrants for three of the four local civic activists on charges of violating the National Security Act.

According to conservative media reports, in 2017, the four, two men and two women, allegedly formed the “North Chungcheong Comrade Party for Independent Unification,” an underground pro-Pyongyang group whose goal was to help overthrow the South Korean political regime.  This party spied on military units, using their ties with the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. They engaged with about 60 regional politicians and activists in a campaign against the introduction of stealth fighters and North Korean ideology among youth and trade union activists.

Only a certain 47-year-old citizen named Song, the owner of a local online media outlet is at large. In turn, he claims that the underground organization does not exist and that the intelligence is manipulating the facts to organize an anti-communist campaign.

To summarize the facts now in the public domain, the National Intelligence Service, police, and prosecutors allege the following:

  • One of the activists started working for North Korea in 2004, while Song began in 2010. When the other two allegedly became supporters of North Korea is not yet known.
  • These activists allegedly followed Pyongyang’s orders and organized a series of protests (street meetings, pickets) against the purchase of American-made F-35A stealth fighters. They also monitored the movements of key political figures of both ruling and opposition political forces in North Chungcheong Province.
  • Song’s online newspaper was used to spread North Korean propaganda and inform Pyongyang about investigations against them. The site is said to have revealed 45 articles praising Kim Jong-un and the DPRK, which the National Security Act expressly prohibits.
  • Three months before the organization’s creation, in May 2017, one of the suspects met with a North Korean intelligence official in Beijing, “holding a newspaper in his left hand, a water bottle in his right hand, and carrying a black bag on his shoulder, as agreed upon in advance.” Another allegedly exchanged signals and made contact with DPRK representatives in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, in April 2018. Another suspect in November 2019 used a locker at a supermarket in Shenyang to get at least $20,000 in cash left for him by Pyongyang agents. From June 2017 to May 2021, a total of 84 cases of contacts were identified.
  • At the meetings, they reported on their activities on behalf of Pyongyang: a movement against “militarization”; negotiations with members of the ruling Democratic Party on inter-Korean affairs; establishing an underground organization to spread North Korean ideology. Communication was kept with the DPRK’s intelligence unit called the Cultural Exchange Department, part of the United Front of the Central Committee of Workers’ Party of Korea responsible for inter-Korean relations on the northern side. In response, they received security instructions such as “How to buy used computers and other equipment and avoid registering real names and leaving no trace of purchase by replacing computers every three years, and replacing wireless modems, SIM cards and email addresses every six months.”
  • The suspects were in active contact with the ruling party and carried out their orders.  In 2017, they worked in the campaign camp of incoming President Moon Jae-in as labor advisers and maintained regular contact with several ruling party heavyweight lawmakers. One of the suspects is a union activist who ran in Daejeon in 2016 as an independent candidate for a seat in the National Assembly. And Song, who remained at large, ran for the extreme left-wing Minjung political party in 2020.
  • It also emerged that one of the four activists ran a fundraising campaign to place ads in newspapers calling for the impeachment of former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, now a conservative presidential candidate.
  • On the other hand, “disguised as regional labor activists, the three allegedly tried to influence politics” and lobbied for proposals beneficial to DPRK. They allegedly met with an unknown high-ranking legislator from the ruling Democratic Party to suggest establishing inter-Korean enterprises, and asked a senior official of the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation for a tree-planting campaign in North Korea.
  • The USB thumb drives seized from the activists’ residences and offices contain confirmation that in 2018 they officially swore allegiance to Kim Il-sung, who they say worked for the unification of the Korean Peninsula and the ultimate victory of socialism. Allegedly these are documents they exchanged with North Korea. Also found were oaths of allegiance to Kim Jong-un written in the suspects’ own blood.
  • Intelligence had been investigating the group for years but did not seek police cooperation until early 2021

Of course, some of the details of the accusation need clarification. For example, the thesis that the article titled “North Korean agent Lee Gwan Jin is a ghost created by South Korean intelligence officials” is a veiled report that the group has been unmasked. We also remember the Unified Progressive Party case regarding what charges and details appeared in the media when the activists were captured and what was left of it in the verdict.

However, this is now happening under a president whom conservatives considered to be pro-North Korea and a severely overhauled intelligence agency led by political appointee Park Jie-won. On this basis, the conservative newspaper JoongAng Ilbo concludes that the version of fiction and provocation is unlikely. Former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl also noted, “With so many people being detained, this case seems to have clear evidence and is therefore undisputed.”

A spokesman for the Blue House has so far made a brief statement to the effect that “this statement is not worth mentioning.” Still, the opposition is promoting the case, namely the People Power Party accuses the administration of conniving with North Korean intelligence activities in South Korea.

As Kim Gi-hyeon, one of the leaders of the People Power Party, stated, “The public could never have imagined that spying activities were taking place in 21st century South Korea and that spies had entered political circles. This shows how much national security has weakened under the Moon administration.”

As the conservative Korea Herald wrote, the arrest “raises concerns that not a few espionage agents may be lurking in South Korean society and working to benefit North Korea…. People cannot but wonder how the suspects became part of a presidential campaign organization, how they were able to meet with a senior lawmaker, and how many allies they gained.” If spies following North Korean orders infiltrate political parties or government institutions, policies toward the DPRK are likely to be distorted, jeopardizing national security. After all, not to mention paid-for protests, the government cut its budget for F-35A purchases this year and last year, reallocating funds to help combat COVID-19. This raises the question for conspiracy theoreticians: was it entirely coincidental that of all the weapons South Korea was going to buy, it was the F-35A that was put aside?

The second block of criticism of the government is related to the fact that by its actions (especially the pogrom Moon organized for the security services), the government has severely curtailed the ability of counterintelligence and generally coddles with openly pro-North Korean NGOs. “The government must reflect on whether it unwittingly fostered an atmosphere conducive to secret activities benefiting North Korea. Probably the alleged spy ring is just part of a larger force that cries for peace outwardly while working for North Korea behind the scenes.”

From a right-wing perspective, the evidence is ample. The Moon administration took no action on anti-American and pro-North Korea protests and rallies: a leftist student committee openly praised Kim Jong-un and held an event in Seoul inviting him to visit South Korea. The story about the publication of Kim Il- sung’s memoirs in the ROK, about which we have already written is also part of this narrative.

As for the “secret service reform,” recall that in 2024 the intelligence service will lose its authority to combat “communist (read: pro-North Korean)” activities inside the country – they will be transferred to the police. Military intelligence has also been reorganized to the point of uselessness, therefore conservatives claim that “the government should reconsider its hasty restructuring of the intelligence services after a thorough analysis of the North’s spy campaigns before it is too late.”

What will be the political implications of this story? “You could say that this accusation of espionage could derail the upcoming presidential election,” believes Shin Yul, a professor of political science at Myongji University, but it’s too early to say anything like that. The investigation continues, the Blue House is placing information behind the scenes, and news of the investigation has stopped. But we will be watching this very closely, for it will hit Moon and his party among many other scandals in the event of a severe compromise.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.