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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.
  • 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)

  • Antara

    The documentary presents the issue in concern subtly and wonderfully!

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North Korea Explores Home-Grown, Sanctions-Proof Energy

The North’s interest in tidal energy also reflects a practical desire to exploit existing resources.

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North Korea
North Korean men walk with the West Sea Barrage in the background in Nampo, North Korea, Feb. 2, 2019. VOA

Power-strapped North Korea is exploring two ambitious alternative energy sources, tidal power and coal-based synthetic fuels, that could greatly improve living standards and reduce its reliance on oil imports and vulnerability to sanctions.

Finding a lasting energy source that isn’t vulnerable to sanctions has long been a priority for North Korean officials. Leader Kim Jong Un used his New Year’s address last month to call on the country to “radically increase the production of electricity” and singled out the coal-mining industry as a “primary front in developing the self-supporting economy.” For the longer-term, he stressed the importance of atomic, wind and tidal power.

Since further development of atomic energy is unlikely anytime soon, the power-scarce country is developing technology to “gasify” coal into substitute motor fuels. It also is looking into using huge sea barriers with electricity-generating turbines to harness the power of the ocean’s tides.

FILE - Young joggers pass by as smoke billows from the stack of the Pyongyang Power Plant in Pyongyang, North Korea, Dec. 15, 2018.
Young joggers pass by as smoke billows from the stack of the Pyongyang Power Plant in Pyongyang, North Korea, Dec. 15, 2018. VOA
Coal and hydropower

Coal and hydropower are North Korea’s main energy resources. The North imports nearly all of its oil and petroleum products from China. Solar panels are visible just about everywhere, from urban balconies to rural farm buildings and military installations. Wind remains a very minor energy source.

The North’s renewed focus on oil alternatives underscores what some foreign observers believe are two of its long-term best bets.

Kim’s late father, Kim Jong Il, tried to get international support for developing nuclear power in the 1990s before the North ultimately opted instead for nuclear weapons. That brought some of the most intense sanctions ever applied by the United Nations against the country, making its energy situation even more precarious.

But coal is something North Korea has in abundance.

It’s used to supply thermal power plants and factories, to heat homes and to make fertilizer and even a kind of cloth, called Vinylon. Slow-running, smoke-belching trucks that use a gasification process with firewood are common in the North Korean countryside. Coal isn’t generally seen as a good oil-product substitute because converting it to a liquid form is inefficient and expensive — coal gasification was last used on a large scale in Nazi Germany to keep its cars and trucks moving.

Efforts paying off

Given North Korea’s limited options, it’s a technology that appears to be paying off.

The output from one gasifier unit reportedly destined for the North Sunchon Chemical Plant, north of Pyongyang, could yield synthetic fuel amounting to about 10 percent of the North’s recent petroleum supply, according to a recent study for the Nautilus Institute by David von Hippel and Peter Hayes, two of the foremost experts on the issue. The study cited as one of its sources a Wall Street Journal report from December that tracked the unit to a Chinese exporter.

The facility is believed to be a center of “C-1” technology, which uses coal to make a kind of gas used to produce synthetic fuels, industrial chemicals and fertilizers.

Now that China has reduced its coal imports from the North in line with the sanctions, there’s more available for gasification.

“The project appears to provide a significant benefit to the DPRK, in terms of supplying fuels to compensate for petroleum product imports that run afoul of United Nations Security Council sanctions passed in the last two years, although the project will not completely replace all lost imports on its own,” they wrote in the report.

DPRK is short for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

A North Korean man looks out to the sea as he stands on the West Sea Barrage in Nampo, North Korea, Feb. 2, 2019. North Korea's coast is a rich tidal power resource, one European official said.
A North Korean man looks out to the sea as he stands on the West Sea Barrage in Nampo, North Korea, Feb. 2, 2019. North Korea’s coast is a rich tidal power resource, one European official said. VOA

Power from the tides

The North’s interest in tidal energy also reflects a practical desire to exploit existing resources.

Glyn Ford, a former member of the European Parliament with extensive experience with the North, said he has had several discussions with North Korean officials regarding tidal power and even helped arrange a study tour to a facility in the UK a decade ago. He said they have tried to invite experts to the North.

The country is perfectly situated for tidal power.

“The bulk of the Korean Peninsula’s west coast is a rich tidal power resource,” Ford said in a telephone interview with The AP. “There are some detailed studies of the potential in South Korea and the same resources are there to be exploited north of the Demilitarized Zone.”

The world’s largest functioning tidal power plant is near the South Korean city of Ansan. It opened in 2011 and produces about enough power to support a city of 500,000.

Kim Jong Un has shown a strong penchant for mobilizing his million-man military on big projects. And the North has shown it can build something like a tidal power plant.

A guide stands next to a model of the West Sea Barrage in Nampo, North Korea, Feb. 2, 2019. North Korea is exploring alternative energy sources.
A guide stands next to a model of the West Sea Barrage in Nampo, North Korea, Feb. 2, 2019. North Korea is exploring alternative energy sources.VOA

One of North Korea’s proudest accomplishments is the gigantic West Sea Barrage, which was completed in 1986 at a cost of $4 billion. The huge seawall near the city of Nampo, a port about an hour’s drive from the capital, crosses the mouth of the Taedong River and helps control flooding and reduce the amount of salt that seeps in from the ocean, increasing the amount and quality of arable land.

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“The attraction is that, apart from the turbines, it is all a gigantic earth-moving project,” Ford said. “That’s ideal for the Korean People’s Army skillset.” (VOA)