Michael Jang and the Ilsimhoe Scandal

[In the Shadow of the Sun]
Han Ki Hong, President, NKnet  |  2014-09-19 22:10

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 ninth part of an exclusive series of excerpts, Daily NK finds out why.

On October 24th, 2006, South Koreas 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 Koreas controversial National Security Law, which forbids so much as contacting North Koreans, much less passing them sensitive information.

Jang had come to the attention of intelligence operatives some years earlier. He had been part of the democratization student movement in the South, which the NIS monitored very closely. They noticed that he also took visits to China that appeared unrelated to any of his business interests; the secrecy with which he undertook many of his activities raised alarm in Seoul. It was during the process of gathering further evidence that the NIS found information on his co-defendants. Evidence of the triumvirates secret meetings with North Korean operatives led to the rapid expansion of an existing investigation.

It was subsequently found that Jang had in fact visited North Korea secretly for the first time in 1989. On subsequent visits throughout the 1990s, he swore an oath of loyalty to the Chosun Workers Party and, like Kim Young Hwan, was ordered to set up a pro-North underground organization. Finally, in January 2002 he did as ordered, forming Ilsimhoe and leveraging it to acquire information to pass back to the North. 

Prosecutors alleged that the organizations political program and structure were typical of a pro-North Korean underground political party in the South, and the Supreme Court agreed, concluding that the group espoused the tenets of Juche and had received orders from the Chosun Workers Party. In its only act of dissent, the court, though it accepted that Ilsimhoe had transferred sensitive information to the North, judged that espionage had not been the group's primary purpose.

Those implicated all pled the Fifth Amendment, using every institutional avenue available to delay judicial proceedings. This made the prosecutions work more difficult; however, even this was ultimately insufficient to stop the case from putting another nail in the coffin of pro-North Korea sentiment in the South.

The role of Choi Ki Young was of particularly relevance. Choe, who had risen from the rank and file to become deputy on the DLP standing committee, was found to have passed information on the partys core membership to North Korea. This led to a schism within the party between the now National Liberation (NL) and Peoples Democracy (PD) factions. The NL faction opposed the expulsion of anyone who had been involved in the scandal. 

In the end, the president's office also grew concerned. Reports at the time allege that the investigation was pointing strongly toward the gates of the Blue House. This may have been what led former student activists working therein to ask then-President Roh Moo Hyun to halt it. In the process, the head of the NIS left his post.

The Ilsimhoe case is an important one in the historical development of Pyongyangs strategic approach to the South. Where previously the North had focused on establishing underground front organizations in the South, using people like Kim Young Hwan to do its bidding, on this occasion it attempted to infiltrate an established political party and its Seoul-based structure.

The revised strategic approach bears obvious comparison with the emergence of Lee Seok Ki, who, readers will recall, began as an organizing member of Kim Young Hwans Minhyukdang at the turn of the century, but shot to public prominence a decade later as a proportional representation candidate with the left-wing UPP, or Unified Progressive Party, a coalition of progressive factions of which one is... the old DLP.

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