Who Is Ma Young-Ae, and What Does She Know?

[Updated 6 Apr 06; scroll down]

Via The Flying Yangban, it looks like the U.S. may be on the verge of accepting its first North Korean refugee. Like the Yangban, I’m happy about it. Unlike the Yangban, I don’t see this as necessarily precedent-setting for the broader issue of accepting refugees fleeing persecution in North Korea.

Reason: this refugee is also fleeing persecution in South Korea. No, that wasn’t a typo:

Ma came to South Korea in 2000. In April 2004, she went to the U.S. for the events of a North Korea Freedom Day organized there, but the South Korean government revoked her passport because of her anti-North Korean activities abroad. In response, Ma applied for asylum in the U.S.

What that means is that I’ve actually met Ms. Ma, although I can’t match her name with a face. Otherwise, I have no other knowledge of the matter than the reports I’ve linked here.

Why would the South Koreans do something this dumb, assuming the accuracy of the report? One excellent reason might be Ma’s background as a former North Korean counterintel agent, via this NY Times piece archived by our colleague Richardson. Having worked for the Dear Leader in China, Ma no doubt knows where some bodies are buried, and that might even know a few things about one case that’s of the utmost interest (among many others) to Rep. Henry Hyde and other powerful members of Congress — the disappearance of the Rev. Kim Dong Shik, a U.S. permanent resident who was living in Hyde’s home state of Illinois. Rev. Kim, who was sick and wheelchair-bound, was abducted from China in 2000 while trying to help North Korean refugees escape. In 2004, the South Koreans actually caught Yoo Young-hwa, one of the North Korean spies implicated in his abduction. Yoo even admitted his role, possibly hoping to get the same treatment afforded to the spy who abducted Megumi Yokota.

Despite the lack of indication that Yoo has revealed anything of interest on Rev. Kim’s whereabouts, Rep. Hyde’s letter made it quite clear that North Korea isn’t coming of the U.S. terrorism list until North Korea explains exactly what happened to Rev. Kim, except perhaps over the dead bodies of those in the Illinois delegation.

I’m speculating, of course, that Ma knows about Rev. Kim, but if she does, and tells it to the Americans, it could prove extremely embarrassing to South Korea, which consistently seeks to cover for North Korea with the United States. If Ms. Ma is willing to testify about the activities of a terrorist or criminal organization, it could be another avenue for a possible criminal indictment of Kim Jong Il, something that’s already reported to be under consideration over his counterfeiting activities.


This puts Ms. Ma in a much better legal position than the unfortunates who’ve heard that South Korea is but a stepping stone to the USA. But of course, asylum isn’t about letting people pick their favorite country; it’s about saving lives and giving refuge from persecution. That much is specifically required by this federal statute, which I’ve long considered the State Department to be willfully flouting.

That being said, if the U.S. has only so much room, better to set it aside for those in greater peril in China, Vietnam, or Thailand. For those not among the nearly 20% of refugees who report being subjected to censorship by South Korea, the ROK is a place where they can speak, live, and eat relatively freely. It’s a long-standing principle of international law that a refugee doesn’t get to hop from refuge to refuge.

Update: UniFiction Minister Lee Jong Seok is denying it:

The unification minister said the government does not and cannot suppress North Korean defectors, let alone anyone else, in the country.

“South Korea is a democratic society. How would that even be possible? I don’t know whether he is doing this to win refugee status in the United States, but it is disrespectful to the (South Korean) government and the people,” Lee told a press briefing.

Lee’s version contains some fundamental factual errors, starting with Ma’s gender, and ending with the preposterous claim that South Korea doesn’t suppress defectors’ speech. Lee ought to ask South Korea’s own National Human Rights Commission about that one.

I have no idea whether Ma is telling the truth. I just know that Lee isn’t.


  1. It’s hard to imagine that Ma has any of the sorts of embarrassing info about which you speculate. If she had, the Sunshine Boys are not likely to have lifted her ticket but, instead to try to sequester her a la the Hwang (the Wizard of Oz) Jang-yop, especially if it meant giving the US unobstructed access to her.