Years before the Democratic Labor Party lawmaker Lee Seok-ki was recorded on a wiretap plotting violent attacks in support of a proposed North Korean invasion, the DLP was rocked by another North Korean fifth column scandal — the alleged Il Shim Hue spy ring.
On October 24th, 2006, South Korea’s state intelligence agency, the NIS, arrested three men: Michael Jang, former Democratic Labor Party (DLP) central committee member Lee Jeong Hun, and the head of a private education institute, Son Jeong Mok. According to investigators, the three were suspected of forming the core of a shadowy group called “Ilsimhoe.” They and two others were said to have visited China in March that year, whereupon information was passed to North Korean agents on a range of matters, including personnel data on a South Korean political party.
The Democratic Labor Party, heavily implicated in the affair, accused state intelligence of seeking to fabricate an “anti-North, anti-unification frenzy” through “false accusations.” However, the Supreme Court ruled against this speculative version of events. Instead, the accused were found guilty of violating South Korea’s controversial National Security Law, which forbids so much as contacting North Koreans, much less passing them sensitive information. [Daily NK, Han Ki-hong]
Eventually, five men would be arrested in connection with Il Shim Hue: Jang, whose Korean name is Jang Min-ho; Lee Jin-gang, an employee in Chang’s firm; Sohn Chong-mok, who had also been a student activist; Lee Jung-hoon, a former DLP leader and head of a group calling itself “Struggle Committee for Liberation of the Masses, Attainment of Democracy and Unification of the Nation”; and Choi Ki-young, the DLP Vice Secretary General, who had also been a leader of violent anti-U.S. demonstrations at Camp Humphreys in 2005.
Long-time OFK readers will recall that the spies were uncovered by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, or NIS, in 2006, right around the apex of the Sunshine Policy, when the leftist Roh Moo-hyun was still President. The group’s handlers, almost certainly members of North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau, ran the operation out of a safe house on the outskirts of Beijing, where the members had sworn loyalty oaths to North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party.
From beginning to end, the NIS investigation into the alleged spy ring swam against a mighty current of presidential ambivalence, and it’s not hard to see why. Some reports — most sourced to the NIS and unconfirmed — claimed that Il Shim Hue had used its influence within South Korea’s political left to play kingmaker in the May 2006 Seoul mayoral election, and that it even had a mole inside the Blue House. (The name of a Blue House Secretary was reportedly found among Jang’s papers when his home was searched.) Chang’s own wife worked as a secretary in U.S. Forces, Korea. Jang himself had joined the U.S. Army in 1989 and served in Korea. According to various reports, the group had penetrated “major government offices” and fed confidential information about the six-party talks to Pyongyang. One report alleged that it also plotted violent attacks (foreshadowing Lee Seok-ki’s case years later).
Unfortunately, most of those reports went no further than the pages of the Joongang Ilbo and the Chosun Ilbo and were never tested in court. Just as the investigation was reaching its apex, NIS head Kim Seong-Kew unexpectedly resigned, hinting that he had come under political pressure from above. The case was quickly brought to trial, where a South Korean court convicted Jang and the other four defendants of spying for North Korea, but acquitted them of forming a ring, saying that the organization was too loose to be described as such. In his statement to the court, Jang described the group as “a private unification project group.” So noted. (In their communications with one another, the defendants called their group a “Valentine Club.”)
Jang got nine years, and has since paid this modest debt to society in full. So where is he now?
Apologists for North Korea, mostly those on the far left, are fond of crying “McCarthyism” when their views are compared to Pyongyang’s and found to be strikingly similar, or when it is noted that one influential Korean-American “peace” activist frequently appears at political rallies in North Korea, or in the pages of the Rodong Sinmun while meeting with senior North Korean officials. It should go without saying that not all of those who favor soft-line policies toward North Korea sympathize with the regime or apologize for its crimes against humanity. (I’m not so fond of the recent calls for a “decapitation” strike against Pyongyang myself.)
It would be equally false, and dangerously naive, to deny that there are North Korean sympathizers — and perhaps, agents of influence — among the anti-anti-North Korean left, including here in the United States. McCarthy’s category error was to make broad-brush allegations of foreign influence against those with left-leaning views based on spurious evidence and innuendo. The extreme left answers with a category error of its own, by redefining McCarthyism to include any citation of evidence of another’s extreme left-wing views, even when that evidence includes their own words, or the judgments of competent courts of law.