According to the UPI, which in turn cites reports from Yonhap and SBS, one of America’s most infamous and influential pro-North Korean groups is under investigation “for tax evasion and political activities that violate U.S. tax laws.”
The nonprofit Korean American National Coordinating Council in New York is under investigation according to local Korean American and diplomatic sources, but it was unclear which government agency was conducting the full-scale investigation, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported.
The investigation also is the first reported case of a probe into a group that previously has expressed views sympathetic to the Pyongyang regime. [UPI, Elizabeth Shim]
That’s more than a mild understatement.
Investigators arrived on Thursday at the office of KANCC in the Interchurch Center building near Columbia University to begin their query, South Korean television network SBS reported.
A New York-based diplomat who spoke to Yonhap on the condition of anonymity said the organization was under investigation because of an alleged violation – and that U.S. investigators were probing other organizations that have expressed pro-Pyongyang sentiments.
The mere expression of pro-Pyongyang sentiment, without more, is protected by the First Amendment, and would not be a basis for a criminal investigation in the U.S., but is illegal in South Korea. I wonder if that means our “diplomatic sources” are South Koreans. Clearly, the report doesn’t tell the whole story, but then, KANCC’s president was unavailable for comment when the story broke. He was in North Korea for the big Liberation Day celebrations.
[KANCC President Yoon Kil Sang in Pyongyang last week. Front row, fourth from left]
KANCC has since posted an angry denial of Yonhap’s story, calling it a malicious lie and a total fabrication, threatening a libel suit, and demanding an apology. KANCC denies having been searched or even contacted by the feds. It claims that it merely advocates for human rights, peaceful reunification, and meetings of separated families. As early as 2003, after KANCC arranged for Suki Kim to travel to North Korea, its then-President, Michael Hahm, took exception to her characterization of it as “US-based organization of pro–North Korea activists.” (Kim’s story is well worth reading.)
I don’t know if KANCC is really under investigation or what for, and they’re innocent of tax evasion or any other crime until proven guilty. What’s incontrovertible is that KANCC is, at the very least, strongly sympathetic to North Korea. Its contribution to the North Korea human rights discourse has been to publish claims that the whole issue is a fabrication and a “racket,” criticizing the establishment of a U.N. human rights office in Seoul, and arguing that the world’s greatest human rights violator is (of course) the United States. Its relations with Pyongyang are, to use the Rodong Sinmun‘s quaint term, “compatriotic.”
The reports don’t specify why the feds might be interested in KANCC’s political activities, but this public database has posted some of its tax returns online.* On its 2013 return, which is marked “open to public inspection,” KANCC claimed tax exemption as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and described its work this way:
TO EXERCISE AND PROTECT THE PRIVILEGES AND INTEREST OF THE RESIDENTS OF KOREAN-AMERICAN COMMUNITY IN THE NEW YORK, NEW JERSEY, CONNECTICUT AND TRI -STATE AREA, TO FOSTER A HEALTHY INTEREST IN THE CIVIC AFFAIRS OF THE COMMUNITY
Section 501(c)(3) grants tax-exempt status to organizations “operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition,” but limits their ability to engage in political campaigning, lobbying, or — here’s the kicker — “carrying on propaganda.” Now, words don’t always mean in law what they mean in daily usage, and you should not read anything in this post as a legal opinion. I’m not a tax lawyer, and you can parse or stretch a legal definition of “propaganda,” but as far as the daily use of the term goes, I know propaganda when I see it:
Post after post praises Kim Il-Sung, sows anti-American conspiracy theories, or generally portrays North Korea as an earthly paradise. The content consists almost entirely of pro-Pyongyang tracts, republished propaganda from Uriminzokkiri and KCNA, and assorted maniacal batshite (“Kim Il Sung, Iron-willed Commander,” “Pyongyang Mass Rally Marks Day of Struggle against US Imperialism,” “Information Songun politics Beneficial to People,” and “Zionist-Anglo-Saxon Caliphate vs BRICS“). Also, don’t miss the letter, published on KANCC’s site, that compares the U.S. to Josef Mengele and Unit 731.
What I did not find on KANCC’s web site is much evidence of its “civic affairs” work.
Interestingly enough, KANCC’s web site also caught the attention of the New York Times back in 2003, for its many “selections from the writings of the Great Leader, as Kim Il Sung is known, and his son, Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader.” KANCC’s then-President, Rev. Michael Hahm, told the Times he was “not happy with the site,” and that it was “run independently out of the group’s Washington office,” which did not return the reporter’s calls. And yet the web site doesn’t seem to have changed much in the last 12 years.
UPI’s report claims the feds are also looking into KANCC’s contacts with North Korean officials, including a visit to the North Korean U.N. mission “on the first anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death in 2012 to deliver condolences,” and a possible attempt to contact members of Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong’s entourage during a visit to the U.S. last year.
These things, by themselves, would not necessarily violate U.S. law, either, although there are legal restrictions on contacts with foreign officials, which the Justice Department helpfully summarizes here. One of these is the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires “publicity agents” and “information-service employees” acting “subject to the direction or control of a foreign government or official” to register with the Justice Department. I can’t say one way or another whether KANCC is acting under Pyongyang’s direction or control; perhaps it’s just independently sycophantic. According to DOJ records, however, it isn’t FARA registered.
On the other hand, there’s no question that KANCC officials have met with senior North Korean officials. KANCC’s 2013 tax return lists one Yoon Kil-Sang as the President of KANCC. For your reference and identification, here are two photos of Yoon from KANCC’s web site. The Korean Central News Agency lists a “Yun Kil Sang” as a frequent visitor to Pyongyang leading delegations of “Koreans in the U.S.”** The most recent such report is dated last Friday.
In the KCNA photo below, Yoon is on the left, and Kim Yong Nam, President of the Presidium of the DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly, is on the right. Pyongyang doesn’t usually give this kind of photo op to ordinary tourists or community activists.
Also, here’s Yoon (second from right) at the Liberation Day rally in Pyongyang.
Here’s video grab of Yoon at a big North Korean rally at the DMZ (see this link for the Boston Globe‘s report on that rally).
Unless my eyes deceive me, that’s also him in the center of the image below, wearing sunglasses and a black windbreaker, at a propaganda rally at Mt. Paektu, Kim Jong-Il’s mythical birthplace.
[Let’s carry out Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il’s reunification philosophy!]
This KCNA report from January quotes Yoon praising His Porcine Majesty:
Kim Jong Un’s Personality Praised by Overseas Koreans Pyongyang, January 16 (KCNA) — Overseas Koreans are praising the personality of the dear respected Kim Jong Un as a great man. [….]
Overseas Koreans said in general that they felt “kind-heartedness” and “high-spiritedness” from Vice-Chairman Kim Jong Un when they were received by him after paying their respects to the bier of Kim Jong Il, chairman of the DPRK National Defence Commission, displayed at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, the article noted, saying:
Yun Kil Sang, chairman of the Federation of Koreans in the U.S., said: His image gave other persons something comfortable. It gave a dignified yet gentle impression. When I looked at his face, I could feel that his hand shaking was based on warm sincerity, not casual manner.
KANCC’s officers were also behind this “open letter” to President Obama, calling on him to lift sanctions against North Korea, normalize relations with it, and (sit down for this) sign a peace treaty with it. The letter is dated December 2014, the same month President Obama accused North Korea of being behind the Sony hack and terrorist threat. The letter is signed by Moon J. Pak, as “Senior Vice President” of KANCC, and was posted on KANCC’s web site. It was also published by the rabidly pro-North Korean blog Minjok Tongshin, whose publisher, Roh Kil-Nam, is the recipient of the coveted (by some) Kim Il-Sung Prize, has a degree from Kim Il Sung University, and had visited the Workers’ Paradise a whopping 62 times as of last October.
According to this site, Pak’s open letter was also published as a full-page color ad in the New York Times last March. An ad like that could easily have cost $200,000. That’s about triple what KANCC reported to the IRS in total revenue in 2013 ($71,650, including $15,050 in “program service revenue, including government fees and contracts”) and $70,178 in expenses, leaving about $1,500 net. KANCC’s balance sheets and past tax returns report between $50,000 and $80,000 in gross income and almost no net. A group calling itself “Korean-Americans for Peace for the U.S.A. & North Korea & South Korea” lists 66 individual donors who supported the ad. The first three names are KANCC officers Yoon, Moon J. Pak (the author), and Michael Hahm. The letter also references a Korean-Americans for Change PAC, which reported total receipts of $7,650 to the Federal Election Committee in 2008. Did these individual donors really scrape together 200 grand for this ad? Hey, anything’s possible. KANCC reported no foreign donations on its 2013 return, and I have no evidence to the contrary, but I’ll never underestimate its influence again.
The point of this post isn’t to argue that KANCC violated its tax-exempt status or any other law. If there’s any substance behind UPI’s report, the legal process will decide that. Furthermore, most Americans would agree that the IRS shouldn’t target nonprofits for tax enforcement because it disapproves of their political views, although any law that grants tax exemption to the likes of KANCC is overdue for an amendment. My point is simply to document what KANCC stands for, and to illustrate why one should be wary of accepting self-serving claims of innocent peace activism at face value. The First Amendment protects your right to lick the feet of murderous totalitarians all you like, but it isn’t an exemption from the scrutiny and criticism of your fellow citizens for the repellent and — to use an archaic term I inexplicably cling to — unpatriotic views you express while doing so.
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* The tax return is filed under the name “Korean American National Council Inc.,” but lists the same employer ID, and exactly the same income and expenses, as this balance sheet for the Korean American National Coordinating Council. Both list Kil Sang Yoon as President or “in care of name.” The tax return for the Korean National Council, Inc., gives an address of “475 Riverside Drive, Room/Suite 1369,” New York. The balance sheet gives an address of “475 Riverside Dr Ste 1368,” New York.
** There is an actual organization called the “Federation of Korean Associations, U.S.A.” It most certainly is not pro-North Korean.