Two Kims and the Betrayal of an Idea

[In the Shadow of the Sun]
Han Ki Hong, NKnet  |  2014-07-20 23:39

In May 2010 a call came into 111 Call Center, where the NIS, South Koreas state intelligence agency, accepts civilian reports of threats to national security. The caller asserted something very serious: that remnants of Minhyukdang, an underground pro-North Korea organization that had been active in the 1990s, had returned to their old ways.

Three years later, the report was found to be accurate. A serving National Assemblyman and former Minhyukdang cadre called Lee Seok Ki had, it was said, formed a new Revolutionary Organization. 130 members of this so-called RO had met at a location in Hapjeong-dong, Seoul during May 2013, a time of great inter-Korean tensions. There they had, the court would later acknowledge, discussed concrete means of fomenting unrest and overthrowing the South Korean state in the event of war. Seven men were convicted; appeals are ongoing.

The simple fact that this could take place in contemporary South Korea often comes as a surprise to Daily NK readers, most of whom have never been steeped in the Cold War milieu of the Korean Peninsula. Yet it is just the most recent in a long line of extraordinary tales of infiltration and espionage, as Zeitgeist Publishing House revealed in 2012 when it released Han Ki Hong's The Shadow of Progressivism". The book seized upon a moment in South Korean history, and was enormously successful. In this, the third part of an exclusive series of excerpts, Daily NK finds out why.

"Letters by Steel," the revolutionary writings of
the young Kim Young Hwan. | Image: Daily NK
Two ranking officials, one of them Yoon, met the South Korean men on the dock and escorted them to a guesthouse in the outskirts of Pyongyang. They would stay there for seventeen days, during which time they were trained in covert radio operation, decoding, and other matters concerning illicit inter-Korean communication.

Then, once the two had been sworn in as full members of the ruling Chosun Workers Party, they were taken to visit Kim Il Sung University and Mankyungdae Revolutionary Academy; the West Sea Barrage at Nampo; a national cemetery in Pyongyang established to memorialize revolutionary martyrs; and the capitals most famous purveyor of cold noodles. Kim was also taken to engage in two debate sessions with North Korean scholars. The subject, at least in principle, was the underpinnings and value of Juche.

However, by far the most extraordinary moment of their brief stay in Pyongyang was two meetings with Kim Il Sung at his resort at Mt. Myohyang.

Kims first meeting with the North Korean leader was brief, just an opportunity to offer some respects. However, the second provided a chance to converse at length over lunch. Veteran official Yoon Taek Rim was in attendance, though Jo was not invited. 

Kim Il Sung did all the talking. He claimed to have heard about Kim Young Hwan while vacationing at his resort, and had personally called for their meeting. This is how Kim Young Hwan recalls the monologue that followed (adopting the North Korean convention of lower case use of "south" and "north"):

Ideology is the most important element in bringing about our revolution. Yet south Chosun people do not realize that they have been colonized by America, and so nor do they see the need to take part in our revolutionary struggle. We must start a movement that exposes the fact that they live in an American colony. We must instil in them the values of Juche; we need just 1,000 Juche warriors to accomplish the revolution in south Chosun.

I asked Irans President Rafsanjani when he visited us how he had managed to complete his revolutionary struggle. He replied that he didn't have an organization specifically set up for the revolutionary process, but that Islam had provided its foundations. He said he succeeded in the revolution by spreading ideology through the church.

The revolution in south Chosun can succeed the same way; namely, by your organized effort to spread the Juche idea. The Chinese Communist Party once overcame an army of 300,000 nationalist troops without a drop of blood being shed. That victory was achieved by convincing their deputy commanders of the superiority of communist political ideology; and then those deputy commanders went away and pressured their commanders into surrendering. 

I have read many of your writings in the Letters by Steel series. Your writings on anti-American struggle are very engaging. I send words of encouragement to your youth organization in the South. I would like you to do your best to lead the organization on behalf of the unification of north and south.

Before departing, Kim told his lunch partner simply, I will do my best. Reunited with Jo, the men left the capital, boarded a ship at Nampo and departed for South Korea. Following a brief stop at a refuelling point in the mouth of the Yangtze River, they travelled south to Seogwipo, a city on the south coast of Jeju Island, arriving at around 11:00 PM on June 1, 1991. 

Kim was troubled. He had not been entirely satisfied with his meeting. Hed hoped for a chance to discuss Juche directly with Kim Il Sung, but had come away feeling that Kim neither knew nor cared about the subject at all. He sensed something negative: a grave sense of disappointment at the North Korean ruling elite.

First, he realized that bureaucracy was the way of life in North Korea: government officials were strict and hierarchical in their dealings with subordinates. Second, he felt that human creativity, one of the most substantive elements of the Juche idea as envisioned by its creator, Hwang Jang Yop, had been absent from his debates with Juche scholars. Those scholars just repeated the same things over and over, without a hint of creative thinking. Third, he had not felt any sense of social vitality anywhere. People appeared dark and depressed. He'd tried to start a conversation with a stranger on the street, only to be stopped by his guide. 

He was eventually forced to conclude that Juche did not exist in North Korean society in any meaningful sense. It was just a tool, a structuring of power relations: in sum, a way for elites to enforce dictatorship over the common people. He felt no trace of the ideal paradigm he had envisioned, and took to criticizing what he had seen.

In an interview with the minor monthly magazine Mal (lit. Speech), he said: Look closely at the status of our relationship with America; I dont think Korea is a U.S. colony [] In North Korea I didnt see any tradition of open discussion of Party ideology, or the free exchange of ideas [] I feel a genuine affection for the people of North Korea, but I dont think we should blindly follow their regime. 

Thereafter, Kims criticism of the Workers Party grew more vocal, especially in the aftermath of Kim Il Sungs death in July 1994. In the May 1998 issue of the same magazine, he wrote, The North Korean Suryong system is completely false; it is a great deception, adding, The system practices no more than extreme control and the politics of fear.

Predictably, Kims stinging critique was not well received up in Pyongyang. The prime proselytizer and underground operator in the South had turned against the Party and system, and people there began to get concerned. But Kim Young Hwan did not stop. Indeed, he went further. He wrote a letter to his comrades:

The North Korean government is not on the side of the people. It opposes them. As revolutionaries it is our primary duty to stand up and fight on the side of the people. A revolution in North Korea is of vital importance; it must be achieved right now. I must work for the overthrow of the Kim Jong Il regime, which starves and oppresses its people. 

Come. Join me.

Some agreed with Kim; others did not. Either way, this was the moment at which the Central Party opted to dispatch agent Won Jin Wu.  His task: to verify once and for all Kim Young Hwans betrayal of the Republic. Won entered South Korea in secret, as he had done many times before. He took secret photographs of Kim Young Hwan, and collected a great many of his writings. The contents of the cache that investigators would later discovered in the sunken vessel was like a daily diary of his final trip to Seoul; indeed, of his final moments of life.

To be continued...

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