For North Korean Spies, Sending Refugees to the Gulag Is Entry Level Work

While most of my allotted blogging time has been consumed by following the Cheonan Incident, several other k-blogs covered the story of one “Kim,” a South Korean, who volunteered in 1999 to work for North Korean intelligence, hunt down and rat out defectors hiding in China, and send them blissfully off to death, or a fate worse than. He also agreed to spy on activists helping the refugees, and on the South Korean military. “Kim” has since been arrested by the South Korean authorities in Seoul:

Mr Kim, 55, was recruited by North Korea during an illegal visit to China in the late 1990s, Yonhap quoted prosecutors in Seoul as saying. He received espionage training in Pyongyang in 2000 before being sent to China as an agent to hunt defectors, they said. But he left China after an accomplice was jailed there. He was arrested as he arrived back in South Korea. Officials said the case was being investigated to see whether Mr Kim had any further accomplices engaged in spying.

Seoul prosecution spokesman Oh Se-in told AP news agency Mr Kim had denied the charges. Mr Oh said Mr Kim had violated South Korea’s National Security Law, which prohibits nationals from engaging in activities which could benefit Pyongyang or having unauthorised contact with North Koreans.

This AP report contains more interesting details about “Kim:”

The 55-year-old man, who was arrested last week and who denies the charges, is accused of taking up the spy job after meeting a female North Korean agent in 1999 in China’s eastern Shandong province, where he was believed to be engaged in drug trafficking, the official said on condition of anonymity because an investigation was ongoing.

The man, surnamed Kim, allegedly traveled to Pyongyang in 2000 for 15 days of spy training and received US$10,000 (S$13,904) and 2 kilograms of narcotics from the North, the official said.

The suspect was sent back to China and started abducting South Korean activists who were helping North Koreans defect from their impoverished, authoritarian homeland. The kidnapped Koreans were sent to the North in cooperation with the female agent, the official said.

The man also kidnapped North Korean defectors hiding in China and forced them back to the North. He also tried to gather information on South Korean intelligence officers operating in Chinese towns near North Korea, the official said.

“Kim” is only the latest of several North Korean spies known to have worked on Chinese soil, some of them more openly than others. The Ilshimhue spy ring, which penetrated to unknown depths into South Korea’s former leftist goverment, met its North Korean handlers in a safe house at 3089 Dongxuhuayuan, 18 Shuangqiaodong-lu, Zahoyang-qu, on the outskirts of Beijing.

It stands to reason that North Korea isn’t repatriating all those refugees across Chinese territory by itself; China must be complicit in permitting the North Korean spies to operate on its soil. Certainly North Korean spies couldn’t have abducted Rev. Kim Dong Shik, who was confined to a wheelchair, and transported him across the Chinese-North Korean border without the Chinese authorities knowing. Certainly the reference to “Kim” “abducting South Korean activists” suggests that he could be a third suspect in Rev. Kim’s abduction, an issue that even captured the sadly ephemeral interest of President Obama.

The abduction of Rev. Kim is now the object of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit in a U.S. federal district court. Thus far, one North Korean agent has been convicted in a South Korean court of taking part in Rev. Kim’s abduction, and another was being questioned on suspicion of involvement before this story broke. (The latter suspect, apparently a North Korean native who went rogue and defected, does not appear to be the same person as “Kim.”)

These three are not the only North Korean agents who’ve worked in China, only to turn up in South Korea later. There is also Ma Young Ae, who became the object of controversy among other defectors, who questioned her truthfulness when she applied for asylum in the United States in 2006, claiming persecution by South Korea’s then-leftist government. Ma, an admitted “former counterintelligence agent” for North Korea, has told the New York Times that “she did undercover work in China before she defected in 1999.” That’s a year too early to know about Rev. Kim’s abduction, but not too late to describe the North Korean agents’ modus operandi, or to have met “Kim,” the spy.

Ma continues to be a controversial figure today. This blog post identifies Ma as one at least two accusers who claim that the Rev. Chun Ki-Won attempted to coerce sexual favors from her (more here, at TMH). Frankly, given all of the baggage with Ms. Ma’s reputation and her admitted links to North Korean intelligence, I can only say that someone is lying. Rev. Chun may be a hero who has, for obvious reasons, become the target of a regime-orchestrated smear campaign. He may be a scoundrel using his position to gain fame and sexual satisfaction, but if he is, he’s certainly chosen a strenuous and dangerous way to get what’s easily available in any South Korean city for a modest and negotiable fee, and virtually no risk of arrest or prosecution. Rev. Chun could also be both of those things — a hero and a scoundrel. Chun does have a reputation as showboat, but no one but Rev. Chun and his accusers knows the truth about the other accusations. Chun is also a survivor who has outlasted plenty of other activists who got caught. This implies a personality attracted to risk, but it also implies one that doesn’t make stupid mistakes, either. Knowing the good that Rev. Chun has demonstrably done for many other people, I’m inclined to ask for more credible evidence than Ma Young-Ae can offer before I deny him the benefit of the doubt. I profess no knowledge about the credibility of the other accusers, but as a defense attorney, I’ve seen multiple accusations against a single subject dissolve under cross-examination.

Finally, there is the case of Won Jong-Hwa, who was arrested in 2008 after sexually seducing and collecting information from male South Korean officers:

Won Jong Hwa, 35, is suspected of collecting information, including photographs and locations of key military installations and weapons systems, partly by offering sexual favors to military officers. One of her lovers, identified as a 26-year-old army captain, was detained for offering classified information to Won even after he found out she was a North Korean spy.

After obtaining information in South Korea, Won handed it over to North Korean agents in China. She frequently traveled to China and delivered to North Korean intelligence agents there the name cards of more than 100 South Korean officers, whose e-mail accounts are said to have been hacked into from China.

Won was first dispatched to China, where she was commissioned to kidnap North Korean refuge-seekers in China for repatriation, and South Korean businessmen to the North.

In a bid to reach Seoul, Won married a South Korean worker in China, disguising herself as a Korean resident in China. She divorced her husband immediately after entering the South in October 2001, and falsely reported to Seoul’s authorities that she was a defector from the North, according to investigators.

I blogged about Won’s case at the time of her arrest and conviction, and when a lieutenant who became one of her lovers was sentenced. Won was recruited by the North Korean regime at a time when she was facing a potentially harsh punishment for stealing zinc. In 1999, she also got her start working in China spying on refugees until she was reassigned to South Korea. At that point, she claimed to have had a change of heart and defected to the South.

Via Andrei Lankov, North Korea has a very long history of spying on and abducting its enemies. One of the lessons from the case of “Kim” and others like it is that North Korea’s ideology continues to appeal to a hard core of sympathizers in South Korea. Another is that not all who claim to be defectors are what they represent themselves to be. It’s not a reason to stop accepting defectors, but it is a reason to vet them carefully and remain open to following the evidence in some convoluted directions.


  1. That “Uriminjokggiri” crap must be pretty powerful.

    I can’t fathom how citizens in a free country with free access to information could be lured into acting on behalf of one of history’s most brutal mass murderering tyrants. Seriously, don’t people know that “we’re a pure race” crap is all a myth? That there’s no scientific basis whatsoever for it? That for thousands of years, the denizens of the Korean Peninsula “interbred” freely with Chinese, Japanese, Mongols, Manchurians and even Arabs? That the Norks are no more the “brothers and sisters” of the South Koreans than I am?

    I guess it’s just human nature to want to be part of special in-group; to feel that somehow your being born of a certain ethnic group automatically confers upon you superiority. This is one of humanities greatest flaws.

    Reading this story made me sick to my stomach.


  2. Milton, human nature is such that there are few things everyone believes in, and you don’t need a whole lot of people disbelieving the South’s or the West’s narrative to get a sizable contingent of spies going.

    20 percent of all Americans believe Obama was born in another country (and 30 percent of Tea Party supporters), even in the face of government verification that he was born here in the Aloha State, so it’s hardly surprising to me that someone in South Korea might, in the face of government insistence of the evils of the North, believe it’s all a bunch of hooey.


  3. He may be a scoundrel using his position to gain fame and sexual satisfaction, but if he is, he’s certainly chosen a strenuous and dangerous way to get what’s easily available in any South Korean city for a modest and negotiable fee, and virtually no risk of arrest or prosecution.

    You are correct that Ma would have been a risky target for Chun. However, the widespread availability and variety of choices and prices for prostitution do not keep some Korean men from using coercion or force to obtain sex from subordinates or juniors. Sexual harassment, sadly, is all too common despite the existence of a large prostitution industry. Perhaps there is a positive correlation between the two.