Discover more from Asia Sentinel
Seoul Toughens Response on North Korean Spies
Yoon government reverses Moon’s policy, goes after domestic “democracy unions”
By: Shim Jae Hoon
South Korean intelligence agents are, for the first time in years, breaking up underground subversion efforts by North Korea. NIS investigators this morning (January 18) raided the office of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, otherwise known as radical "democracy unions" searching for evidence of its penetration by and connections with North Korean agents.
The metropolitan government has also found evidence that some of its "subsidies for civil organizations" had gone to support purported textbooks for junior high school students praising the roles of North Korean state founder Kim Il Sung. The organizations are not known for directly spying for the North, but for indirect attempts to "support" the North Korean cause. A row occurred as KCTU members resisted police attempt to break into their office to seize evidence linking them to pro-North Korean agents.
Press reports quoting sources at the Intelligence Service (NIS), Seoul’s top counterspy agency, say President Yoon Suk Yeol’s administration is determined to end years of what conservative critics have lashed as a lackadaisical posture fostered by the preceding Moon Jae In government in fighting Kim Jong Un’s campaign to undermine political stability by infiltrating spies and saboteurs.
Reports by Seoul’s authoritative newspaper Chosun Ilbo say NIS agents recently broke up a ring of North Korean spy networks in four provincial cities outside Seoul following five years of surveillance. One spy unit operated on the southern island of Cheju, which accommodates a major navy base. The second was uncovered at Changwon, the location of the country’s main defense industry, and two others in the southwestern cities of Kwangju and Chonju, the nation’s political opposition base.
The agents, all South Korean nationals, were said to have been recruited and trained by North Korea’s master spies operating in Cambodia, with orders to penetrate and radicalize trade unions and civic organizations to oppose the conservative Yoon government and US forces in the South. Agents recruited by the North mostly belonged to fringe radical parties with names like Progressive Justice Party and Unification Progressive Party, all ostensibly promoting peaceful relations with North Korea, removal of US troops from the South, and running protest campaigns against imports of US THAAD missiles. These campaigns have been prominent and effective in agitating opposition to the conservative government and US military presence front of the government complex in Seoul.
The emphasis on political agitation as opposed to acquiring sensitive military information indicates a shift in Kim Jong Un’s priorities, according to NIS officers. Those recently apprehended have told agents that they were trained to penetrate trade unions, activist civic bodies like anti-nuclear groups, university student groups, radicalize them, seize top leadership positions in these groups, and establish seemingly legitimate contacts with opposition parties in parliament. The rings had members penetrating a variety of industrial and agricultural bodies, with a mission to organize protests in front of naval bases or army missile sites.
“Their ultimate aim continues to be conquest of South Korea under the Kim regime,” Kim Yong Hwan, a former university student in Seoul who had been recruited by a North Korean spy ring in 1989, told Chosun Ilbo. Kim’s recruiters were so impressed by his work that in 1991, he was taken to the North in a submarine for a meeting with North Korea’s state president Kim Il Sung. “I was told to work for revolution and liberation of South Korea,” he recalled in the interview. But he was so disillusioned by what he had seen in the North that he quit and surrendered to the authorities. Today, he is an activist for the opposite cause, to save young students from falling into North Korean trap as he had.
But that happens to be an extremely rare case, an exception almost. The North is estimated to be running a huge network of saboteurs and spies numbering anywhere between 10,000 to 40,000 agents, according to Kim Kwang Il, a Chosun Ilbo editorial writer. He cites the example of thousands of airwaves abuzz with coded signals being aired to the North every night by agents based somewhere in Seoul or elsewhere.
Why the sudden spotlight on the whole espionage question which, after all, is as old as Korea’s division itself? South Koreans may have to thank former President Moon Jae In for this belated spotlight on North Korean spying. During Moon’s five-year term in office, he often came under criticism for neglecting North Korean subversion, as he pursued his dream of achieving détente with Kim Jong Un at almost any cost. The conservative People’s Power Party has accused Moon for years of abusing the NIS as an instrument for developing contacts with the North, which it was supposed to watch.
Only four or five cases of North Korean espionage cases were reported during the entirety of Moon’s term in office, prompting charges that he was damaging the security of his own country in partisan interests. He came under attack for hastily arranging President Donald Trump’s three fruitless meetings with Kim Jong Un on denuclearization. Trump and Moon ended up giving Kim a lot of publicity without gaining anything of substance. Moon himself met Kim three times but failed to achieve his self-appointed goal of replacing the present armistice agreement with a permanent peace treaty; he was criticized for placing empty peace talks over denuclearization as demanded by the US, South Korea, and Japan. Kim sidestepped the nuclear issue by inviting Moon to Pyongyang for speech and theatrics of unification show. The two sides even signed an agreement forbidding military clashes along the border, which Kim trashed with dozens of missile launches last year.
But the peace euphoria has vanished, with Kim threatening to hold his seventh nuclear test soon, and shattering the feeble peace by firing ICBM missiles capable of hitting all American cities. Nor has he given up spying on the South.
The new government under President Yoon was elected on a platform of strict give-and-take relations with the North. Yoon, a former prosecutor general, has evidently concluded that his predecessor Moon may have broken the law by placing the success of his détente policy above national security. One such indication which belatedly prompted a nationwide uproar involves the killing of a South Korean maritime official by North Korean border guards. The official, who was presumed to have fallen off his ship, was executed by North Korean troops and his body set afire on September 22, 2020. Suh Hoon, Moon’s top national security director, is under suspicion of covering up this case as an attempted defection, removing North Koreans from culpability. Park Jie Won, Moon’s head of NIS, also faces suspicions of deleting intelligence items related to the case. These actions were taken, it was said, to avoid overshadowing President Moon’s peace speech at the UN.
Suh has been arrested for abusing his authority and NIS chief Park Jie-won is under investigation for illegally removing confidential information. Park was earlier convicted of secretly sending US$500 million in bribes to Kim Jong Il, the present leader’s father, as the price for agreeing to hold summit talks with former president Kim Dae Jung.
A thorough review of NIS mismanagement under President Moon’s leadership has resulted in extensive housecleaning and purges of officials under its new director, Kim Kyu Hyun, a career former diplomat. Dozens of Moon’s senior-level intelligence officials have been reassigned or retired under Kim’s cleanup. The ongoing restructuring efforts have brought back experienced professionals who are said to be behind recent arrests of North Korean spies.
President Yoon, a hardliner on North Korea, also appears set to reverse Moon’s legislation under which the NIS’s power to investigate espionage cases is to be transferred to the National Police next year, in a move which Moon said was aimed at barring the NIS from abusing power for political purposes, as was the case under the past military government. With the country now fully democratic for several decades, the ruling party believes that such an excuse should not stand in the way of battling the urgent problem of North Korea’s underground subversion.
The NIS itself came under thorough internal inspection following the appointment of a new director by President Yoon. Kim Kyu Hyun, the new NIS director, is a former presidential national security adviser. Under Kim’s internal agency review, senior officials found to have been slack in dealing with anti-spy operations under Moon have been retired from frontline jobs.