South Korea’s National Assembly has voted to revoke leftist fringe party lawmaker Lee Seok-Gi’s parliamentary immunity and allow his arrest for sedition and “praising North Korea.” This makes it all sound like something a banana republic would charge an opponent with, but in fact, Lee really stands accused of leading something called the Revolutionary Organization and “conspir[ing] to storm firearms depots to secure weapons, destroy oil-storage and communication facilities and assassinate unspecified figures.” The leadership of the main left-opposition Democratic Party, which contains some figures whose rhetoric (if not their concrete plans) can sound just as extreme as Lee’s, has announced its support for the arrest.
[Update: Lee is now under arrest.]
Lee denies the charges, calls them a fabrication, and insists that “democracy” will only grow stronger after the NIS fails to suppress sympathizers of that eerie-emerald-green-shining beacon of democracy known as the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea. The beacon itself is also accusing South Korea of suppressing dissent. (Dissent flows freely from the left-side faucet of Pyongyang’s many convenient corner fountains. Don’t turn the right-hand faucet, whatever you do. All you’ll get is kalbittang.) This is my cue to remind you that the Korean language has a word for “chutzpah.” Say it with me: mak-moo-KA-nae.
As they say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, so I’m reserving final judgment until the NIS plays the recordings and people familiar with Lee’s voice identify it. Whatever the truth is, however, it must involve breathtaking incompetence by someone.
One possibility is that the National Intelligence Service, which is already in the middle of one political scandal, made this whole thing up, because what every spy agency really needs at a time like this is to trump up a red-scare plot, assume that everyone will just take their word for it, fail to back their charge up with solid evidence, and ultimately elevate the alleged plotters from fringe loonies to hallowed dissidents and martyrs. For democracy. This is an extraordinary claim.
The other possibility is that Lee Seok-Gi was the most reckless, sloppy, careless would-be terrorist-slash-politician-slash-spy in human history. By day, he used his position in the National Assembly to obtain documents “primarily related to the armed forces in South Korea and their military facilities and strategies,” including U.S. and South Korean plans to respond to North Korean attacks. By night, he plotted a hopelessly quixotic (but potentially destructive) fifth-column sabotage campaign. On a conference call. Alger Hiss, this is not.
Of the two claims, I find the latter alternative to be less extraordinary than the former. For one thing, it’s not as if anyone is saying, “Lee Seok-Gi? Really? Last guy I’d have suspected!” For another, Lee’s rhetoric isn’t really an outlier when you compare it to other pro-North Korean or anti-American rhetoric we’ve heard from figures on Korea’s political left. Nor is this the first time that members of the Korean political left, including political party officials and union leaders, have organized into cells working in concert with North Korean intelligence officers. It shouldn’t surprise us that all of this implicitly violent rhetoric would eventually produce at least one explicit plan for violent action.
Also, a spokeswoman for Lee’s party certainly is talking like someone who knows the NIS has it all on tape (“It was just a big joke!”). But these people aren’t usually known for their levity.
If there’s a weakness in the NIS’s case, it’s the lack of evidence that Lee and his co-plotters had any imminent intention to act on their plans. Because Lee is alleged to have plotted to aid a North Korean attack, revealing this part of the plot might also reveal evidence of imminent hostile intent by North Korea. Which would also be extraordinary.
The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions also gets an honorable mention here. The KCTU is justly infamous for its anti-Americanism, pro-North sycophancy, and frequent use of premeditated street violence. This time, a KCTU official allegedly was recorded saying that the movements of U.S. civilians should be watched, in the context of plotting a terror-and-sabotage campaign in collaboration with a North Korean invasion. Assuming the recordings corroborate the transcript, I wonder if an investigation will eventually reveal whether these were the words of a rogue local leader, or whether the KCTU has made a corporate decision to get into the business of orchestrating terrorist attacks against U.S. civilian targets.
[Update: See Robert's comment here. He thinks a different interpretation is more likely, although neither of us is really sure.]
The point being: South Korea’s far left (and its far right) are much more extreme than their American counterparts. It’s something to keep in mind the next time you hear someone associated with South Korea’s far left hold up the term “McCarthyism” like some sort of amulet.