On the matter of North Korean spies in South Korea

The conservatives’ offensive against the opposition is partly carried out under the slogans of searching for pro-Pyongyang NGOs and North Korean spies, and in this regard here’s a digest of the most famous espionage scandals of recent years.

An underground activist network or another crackdown on unions?

Recall, back on August 6, 2021, four activists from Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, about 140 kilometers south of Seoul, were accused of espionage for allegedly taking orders from Pyongyang and organizing a series of protests against the purchase of US-made stealth fighter jets. All members of the group are about 50 years old and were active participants in the student nationalist and left-wing radical movement in their youth.  They allegedly have been meeting with North Korean spies in China and Cambodia since 2017, signed a blood oath of allegiance to Kim Jong-un, and received $20,000 from them to establish an underground organization in South Korea called the North Chungcheong Comrade Party for Independent Unification. Although their influence was small, the intelligence services claimed to have been following them for years, and during the search they seized USB sticks containing correspondence (including encrypted) with North Korea.

In November 2022, the story continued as police searched the home and car of Mr. A., a permanent representative of the civic group North Jeolla People’s Action, and seized his cell phone and computer. Mr. A. was accused of contacting a North Korean official dozens of times between 2013 and 2017 and transmitting information to him via email.

A total of seven community activists living in North Jeolla, South Gyeongsang, and Jeju Island affiliated with the small “progressive party” were caught in the investigation. They were charged with passing information to North Korean agents and creating an “anti-state (read: secret) and pro-Pyongyang organization” called the Vanguard of the People’s Independent Unification, which had been operating since 2016.

“Korea Times” reports that this is an extensive underground network – allegedly when a former senior Progressive Party official met with a North Korean agent in Cambodia in July 2017, he was ordered to set up a secret organization on Jeju Island. He was then taught for three days how to form an underground group and transmit and decode coded messages.

The Progressive Party, until June 2020 known as Minjudang (Mass Party), is an extreme left-wing political party, founded on October 15, 2017 by merging several groups, including fragments of the banned United Progressive Party.

The Jeju Island cell had been in contact with the North for more than five years, helping to organize anti-American protests and supporting certain candidates in elections. By November 2022, they allegedly received specific orders from North Korea, including to “take control of the Jeju branch of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (the same KCTU that was behind the relatively recent mass protests by various trade union organizations,” “expand anti-US struggle and opposition to Yoon Suk-yeol,” “oppose high-tech weapons shipments from the United States”, etc.

Although the investigation began under Moon, it is not clear why its active phase has only begun now.

Since most of those arrested were trade unionists, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) immediately announced that this was “nothing but an attempt to undermine the credibility of the confederation, which opposes the anti-labor policies of President Yoon Suk-yeol.”

In January 2023, conservative media in the ROK began to report that intelligence agencies had recorded signs of similar underground organizations in three other cities – Changwon and Jinju in South Gyeongsang Province and Jeonju in North Jeolla Province. It is assumed that all of these cells, including the one uncovered in 2021, were part of an underground organization called “HKH” (“Movement for the United Way of the Homeland”).

On January 18, the secret service and police raided the KCTU headquarters in downtown Seoul. At the same time, the headquarters of the Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union (KHMU), part of the KCTU, was raided. According to eyewitnesses, the city hasn’t seen anything like this in a long time. KCTU spokesman Han Sang-jin told reporters that investigators used excessive force in the raid, which is very unusual compared to previous cases.

On February 1, 2023, Ha Yeon-ho, a “progressive South Korean activist” and head of the Jeonbuk People Movement based in the North Jeolla province, was charged with unauthorized contact with North Korean spies. According to the investigation, between 2013 and 2019 Ha allegedly met with North Korean agents in Hanoi and Beijing several times and corresponded with them via e-mail. On the same day, four activists from Changwon (the investigation believes the underground organization’s “headquarters” was located there) were arrested on charges of carrying out anti-government activities at the behest of North Korea.

Double Agent Broker

On November 10, 2021, a 40-year-old woman who arrived in the South as a defector in December 2018 stood trial in the ROK. It is alleged that since 2012 she has been a broker and transferred money to the families of defectors (such activities are illegal in both South and North Korea, but widespread). In 2016, her activities were uncovered and she was accused of having been allegedly recruited by North Korean intelligence services, which had instructed her during telephone conversations to persuade migrants to return to North Korea. She is alleged to have secured the return of at least one person to North Korea in September 2016.

Upon her arrival in South Korea in 2018, the woman admitted to cooperating with the intelligence services because she had no other choice. In May 2022, the broker was sentenced by a court to 30 months in prison.

The Case of Businessman Kim, or Spy Plagiarism

On January 25, 2022, a businessman named Kim was sentenced to four years in prison for selling facial recognition software developed by North Korea to the ROK and leaking military secrets to Pyongyang.

According to court records, Kim was a member of a student group supporting North Korea and in the early 2000s started a business involving economic cooperation between the South and the North. In 2007, he bought facial recognition software from the North Koreans for 500 million won ($444,422) and then resold it, passing it off as development by his technology company.

Kim was indicted back in 2018, and during court hearings he denied all of the charges against him, claiming that he met with Pyongyang officials with permission from the South Korean government. However, the court found him guilty of violating the National Security Act. At the same time, the court acquitted Kim’s deputy, saying that the latter probably did not know that the program was developed by North Korea.

Hackers, military and watch with a secret

On April 28, 2022, a ROK army captain and the head of a cryptocurrency exchange named Lee were arrested on charges of espionage. The media reports that this is the first time a serving South Korean military officer has been arrested for espionage and receiving payment in cryptocurrency, and the first time a North Korean spy has remotely gained favor with a military officer via social media.

Lee reportedly met a North Korean agent in a dedicated online community and conspired with him to convince an officer he knew to steal classified material. In August 2021, Lee approached a 29-year-old captain, seduced him with cryptocurrency, and allegedly sent the captain first a spy camera disguised as a wristwatch and then a Poison Tap computer hacking device. According to one version, the captain did the hack and provided Lee and an alleged spy with registration information of the Korean Joint Command and Control System (KJCCS – a confidential military network), according to another, he did not manage to hack anything, but the North Koreans received some screenshots of the defense network website, including demonstrating internal security rules.

Nevertheless, Lee received 700 million won ($551,000) in cryptocurrency for his work, while the military officer received 48 million won in bitcoins.

What made the situation particularly poignant was that the arrested captain was a member of a special unit (the 13th Special Operations Brigade, also known as the “beheading squad”) created during the 2017 crisis that was responsible for eliminating the DPRK’s military and political leadership and neutralizing key military infrastructure in case of hostilities or other crisis situation.

… and other stories

On January 7, 2022, the Court of Appeals upheld a 3.5-year prison term for a defector accused of spying for Pyongyang. The defector, whose identity has not been made public, was charged with meeting with a North Korean official after traveling to the border region between China and the North in May 2018 at the request of his brother living in the North. During the meeting, the defector allegedly accepted the official’s request to gather and provide information about brokers who help North Koreans flee their country and about those who leak information about the North’s armed forces to the South. Since then, the defector has repeatedly shared information about other defectors living in Seoul and their families left behind in the North.

On May 3, 2022, NK News published a story about the trial of a DPRK defector named Kim.  In 2018-2019, fearing for the safety of his relatives who remained in the North, he allegedly agreed to cooperate with North Korean secret services. Kim collected information about North Korean refugees in South Korea, their political and other organizations, as well as brokers and border guards who facilitate border crossings by refugees and smugglers for bribes. A South Korean court found him guilty of violating the National Security Act and sentenced him to three years in prison.

On August 8, 2022, a 21-year-old member of the Navy stood trial on charges of praising the North Korean political system and possessing material “beneficial to the enemy.” The Navy prosecutor’s office charged him with posting video clips and materials promoting the North on the Internet, as well as possession of related materials. The sailor had been distributing this material since at least March 2021 and even allegedly used a television in his barracks to play a North Korean propaganda video in front of his comrades. According to preliminary data, the serviceman became interested in socialist ideology when studying at a university and, according to his acquaintances, even before he was drafted into the army, posted materials glorifying North Korea on his social networks.

“Is this what Moon Jae-in brought the country to?”

To what extent these accusations are based on real evidence is unclear to the author, since for obvious reasons the trials are secret. But it would be interesting to point to something else. Although most of the investigations did not begin under Yoon Suk-yeol, the conservative media is actively hyping the thesis that for fear that the investigations would spoil the government’s efforts to demonstrate inter-Korean relations, “Moon Jae-in’s administration, obsessed with peace with North Korea, actually sat idly by without tracking down people who spied for the North,” and only under Yoon was counterintelligence unleashed.

According to the Korea Institute for Liberal Democracy (a right-wing NGO), the number of cases in which intelligence agencies caught groups of spies working for North Korea from 2011 to 2016 was 26. During Moon’s presidency, that number was reduced to three, with investigations into those three cases allegedly beginning during Park Geun-hye’s time.

This is “polished” by the defectors’ tales of “enemies everywhere.” For example, a former senior colonel of the KPA claimed in 2021 that North Korean intelligence officers played an active role in various NGOs and institutions in South Korea.

In addition, as part of the December 2020 National Intelligence Service reforms, the Moon administration passed a law through parliament to give police the right to pursue and investigate North Korean spies, even though identifying spies and gathering evidence requires specialized knowledge, and counterintelligence investigations often require the help of foreign intelligence networks. The law goes into effect on January 1, 2024, and conservatives are actively demanding its repeal.

Perhaps that’s what this wave has to do with. As the author has written before, the effectiveness of the police, which under the Moon reforms will also be subordinate to the local authorities, is likely to fall dramatically, especially if a politician like Lee Jae-myung becomes its regional chief. In this context, the counter-intelligence is trying to catch the closing doors, while also trying to prove that the authors of the security services reform were motivated by self-interest, not by democracy.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


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