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South Korean Documentary “Spy Nation” alleges Mistreatment of North Korean Asylum Seekers

The threat of espionage has become even more dangerous to national security in this era of cyber-terrorism

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FILE - A North Korean defector living in South Korea uses her mobile phone during an interview at her office in Seoul.
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  • In South Korea, a new documentary is attempting to make the case that the Seoul government’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) is engaging in abusive and coercive techniques
  • The threat of espionage has become even more dangerous to national security in this era of cyber-terrorism.
  • The North Korean intelligence service reportedly uses threats of punishment and imprisonment against the families of defectors to force their compliance.

Seoul, September 15, 2016: In South Korea, a new documentary is attempting to make the case that the Seoul government’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) is engaging in abusive and coercive techniques to falsely uncover North Korean spies posing as defectors.

The film Spy Nation focuses on one case, in particular, involving North Korean defector Yu Woo-sung, who was arrested in 2014 on charges of espionage but was acquitted a year later after it was discovered that incriminating documents in the case were fabricated, allegedly by the NIS.

Yu’s case became a widely reported scandal that forced the NIS director Nam Jae-Joon to apologize and a high-ranking official with the intelligence service to resign.

The director of Spy Nation, Choi Seung-ho, uses Yu’s case and others documented in the film to argue the NIS’s over-zealous pursuit of spies is a symptom of a powerful and secretive agency reporting only to the president, that operates with little outside oversight or control.

The Trailer: Spy Nation

“We need to change legal system so that the NIS is prevented to be involved in all these political things and allow the National Assembly total control over the NIS,” said Choi.

Coercion

Part of Yu’s case also involves allegations of physical and psychological coercion during the NIS interrogation process.

Prior to his arrest, Yu worked for the Seoul city government assisting recently arrived defectors.

The NIS suspected he was also sending back to North Korea lists of defector names and other sensitive information.

When Yu’s sister, Yu Garyeo, arrived in South Korea to request asylum, she was interrogated by the NIS about her brother’s activities.

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Director Choi conducted an interview with Yu Garyeo in which she claimed that the NIS kept her in isolation for weeks at a time, with only her interrogator to talk to, and hit, threatened and harassed her until she agreed to make a false confession implicating herself and her brother in spying for North Korea.

Yu Garyeo was deported and though her brother was acquitted of spying, he lost all claims to government aid for North Korean defectors, after it was discovered that he lived in China and became a Chinese national before attempting to defect.

Over 1,000 North Koreans defect to South Korea every year. They all must undergo debriefings at NIS facilities to weed out potential spies and to gather information on the situation inside the secretive and authoritarian Kim Jong Un government.

North Korean defector and analyst Ahn Chan-il, with the World Institute for North Korean Studies, said the debriefing process can at times be harsh but it is overstated to imply that abuse is both widespread and a generally accepted practice.

“It is true that (NIS officials) may talk in loud voices during the process of checking the status of defectors, and they may use some coercive action if (the defectors) seem suspicious, but this applies only to some specific defectors,” said Ahn.

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Real threat

The threat of espionage has become even more dangerous to national security in this era of cyber-terrorism.

Earlier this year, South Korea’s police cyber investigation unit reported that the North had hacked thousands of computers at South Korean firms and government agencies.

There have been cases of North Korean spies posing as defectors. The North Korean intelligence service reportedly uses threats of punishment and imprisonment against the families of defectors to force their compliance.

Independent journalism

Choi, the film’s director, is also affiliated with the Korean Center for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit organization funded by small donations from 350,000 people.

The group stresses its journalistic independence to stand up against political pressure, in contrast to established news organizations that he claims have not held government officials accountable for abuses of power.

The Spy Nation director is also featured in the film as he questions defectors and relentlessly badgers government officials on the street and on one occasion at a crowded airport.

The NIS, Choi said, tried unsuccessfully to level both criminal and civil defamation charges against him for his reporting of the case.

“We completely won the civil charge and they sent us a subpoena once for criminal charge but did not send it anymore, so we were acquitted,” Choi said.

Choi expects Spy Nation to be released to a number of South Korean theaters in September.

Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report. (VOA)

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  • Antara

    The documentary presents the issue in concern subtly and wonderfully!

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Trump Needs Obama For Dealing With North Korea, Said Jon Wolfsthal

Obama advised Trump to pursue the pressure option

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During a meeting regarding the transition, former President Barack Obama presented President-elect Donald Trump with two options for dealing with North Korea, said Jon Wolfsthal, a close Obama aide who served as senior director at the National Security Council for arms control and nonproliferation during the Obama administration.

The two options: Seek a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs through direct engagement, or increase pressure on North Korea through China.

Obama advised Trump to pursue the pressure option, according to Wolfsthal. He specifically advised Trump to push for greater Chinese support to rein in the North’s nuclear development, he added.

“Making it clear to China that their continued protection of North Korea was beginning to undermine American security interests and that we would increasingly have to take steps to protect our interests in a way that might undermine China’s own security was a strategy that we believed was going to bear fruit,” Wolfsthal said during an interview with VOA Korean in February 2017, shortly after his departure from the Obama administration.

President Donald Trump talks with Kim Yong Chol, former North Korean military intelligence chief and one of leader Kim Jong Un's closest aides, as they walk from their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, June 1, 2018.
President Donald Trump talks with Kim Yong Chol, former North Korean military intelligence chief and one of leader Kim Jong Un’s closest aides, as they walk from their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, June 1, 2018. VOA

Pressure and engagement

Despite his repeated criticism of Obama for failing to stop North Korea’s nuclear development, Trump took Obama’s advice and employed it in his strategy. Pressuring China is a key element of Trump’s strategy on North Korea.

What makes Trump’s strategy different from Obama’s is it eventually pursues dialogue with North Korea.

Unlike Obama, who showed little interest in talks with North Korea, Trump is pursuing a dual strategy of pressure and engagement. He is using pressure and engagement in sequence: put pressure first and try engagement.

The purpose of Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” is to press North Korea to return to dialogue and produce desirable outcomes from talks.

President Donald Trump talks with Kim Yong Chol, former North Korean military intelligence chief and one of leader Kim Jong Un's closest aides, as they walk from their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, June 1, 2018.
President Donald Trump talks with Kim Yong Chol, former North Korean military intelligence chief and one of leader Kim Jong Un’s closest aides, as they walk from their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, June 1, 2018. VOA

Trump’s strategy is a clear departure from the Obama administration’s, but it’s not unprecedented. A similar strategy was tried by William Perry, who served as secretary of defense from 1994-1997 under former President Bill Clinton. Perry advocated the so-called “coercive diplomacy,” that is, diplomacy backed up with a credible military threat.

US promises, silence on human rights

Trump sent a clear message to Pyongyang that his strategy is different from that of the previous administration: seeking dialogue while keeping sanctions in place.

In a bid to bring North Korea to the table and allay the North’s security concerns, the Trump administration laid out four actions the U.S. would not take against North Korea.

In August 2017, as tensions were rising rapidly after North Korea’s second intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson assured North Korea that the U.S. “will not seek a regime change, a collapse of the regime, an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, or an excuse to send military north of the 38th parallel.”

No previous U.S. administration had ever made such promises to North Korea in this way.

People watch a TV screen showing file footage of U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, May 16, 2018.
People watch a TV screen showing file footage of U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, May 16, 2018. VOA

Trump has also been relatively subdued in his criticism of North Korea’s human rights violations compared with previous administrations, a stance that has drawn criticism from some members of Congress and human rights groups. Trump’s supporters, however, say his efforts to engage North Korea would not be productive if the administration raised the human rights issue strongly.

Top-down approach

Trump may soon to be the first sitting U.S. president to meet with a North Korean leader, with the upcoming summit in Singapore. His top-down approach has had its ups and downs, however.

Supporters say Trump has made far more progress in diplomacy with North Korea than any of his predecessors. The dramatic shift from a possible military confrontation to a flurry of high-level diplomacy in less than six months was only possible because of Trump’s full support, they say.

Supporters argue Trump’s commitment to dialogue contributed to the North Korean regime’s decision to return to talks, saying Pyongyang has been seeking a summit with a U.S. president for many years.

Critics argue Trump should not start the discussions, but that his involvement should be the carrot at the end of the process.

They also argue allowing a North Korean leader to have a face-to-face meeting with a sitting U.S. president alone is a huge concession to North Korea. Such a meeting gives legitimacy to the North Korean regime, which it badly needs, without offering the U.S. anything in return.

Some critics also suggest the summit helps Kim shift his image from that of a “brutal dictator” who executed his uncle and ordered the assassination of his half brother to a “skillful leader.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects a long- and medium-range ballistic rocket launch drill in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang, Aug. 30, 2017.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects a long- and medium-range ballistic rocket launch drill in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang, Aug. 30, 2017. VOA

Fate of dual strategy

The Trump administration has said it will keep sanctions in place against Pyongyang until a complete denuclearization of North Korea is achieved. It believes maintaining sanctions will give the U.S. the upper hand in negotiations with North Korea.

It has also vowed to increase sanctions and international pressure against North Korea if talks fail.

Critics warn, however, that Trump’s pressure campaign will lose momentum once talks are under way.

Trump’s critics say the consequences of failed talks are great, and that it would be difficult for the administration to revive diplomatic efforts for sanctions if talks collapse at the summit.

Also read: Moon meet Trump North Korea summit

They caution it is unrealistic to unilaterally demand North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons, saying North Korea is likely to demand corresponding action from the United States.(VOA)