The second trend is related to the kind of work a community that might be called “Korean Protestant sects” is doing against North Korea. I say “might be called “ because, on the one hand, these sects operate both in South Korea and in the United States. And on the other, many of these cults more closely resemble disruptive organizations like Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church than true Christian organizations.
I have repeatedly come face-to-face with the alarming notion that these rabid Protestant sects are not just hiding behind protest and human rights activities, but are engaging in activities far outside the bounds of human rights.
Korean Protestants combine fanaticism and pragmatism to wage their own war with North Korea, with Moon even equating communism with devil worship. They relate the most terrible tales about the horrors of the North — Kim Kyong Ok’s stories about how Christian children are boiled in cauldrons, for example, or Lee Sun Ok’s tales of how Christian martyrs are killed by pouring molten iron on them. And although much of what they circulate on the net is technically impossible, the Protestant community is responsible for the majority of the most glaring propaganda falsehoods that make North Korea out to be an Empire of Evil.
But their activities go beyond that. I have repeatedly found that some of these groups have tried to seriously rock the boat by recruiting terrorists from among defectors or Chinese-Koreans in China. They were supposed to commit several high-profile terrorist attacks in North Korea, like blowing up the monuments to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, which would have had a dual impact. First, they could have been interpreted as a sign that there is a “Christian resistance” in North Korea in urgent need of support like that provided in Syria and Libya. Second, such bombings would naturally have produced a new round of repressions, which could also be exploited for propaganda purposes. The worse, the better.
Here, of course, I am forced to rely mainly on circumstantial evidence and on information not entirely intended for the open press. Therefore, I will focus on just a few incidents.
The highest profile incident is linked to the March 29, 2012 arrest of the group of South Korean human rights activists led by Kim Yong-hwan in the Chinese city of Dalian, in Liaoning Province. According to reports in the South Korean media, they were arrested when they met to discuss assistance to North Korean defectors and were charged with violating Chinese national security laws under which Kim could have been sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The 49-year-old Kim Yong-hwan is a very interesting person. He had previously been called the father of the political movement Chusapha, which supported the North Korean ideology of Juche. His articles ignited student anti-government demonstrations in the 1980s, but Kim changed his views in the mid-1990s and began fighting for human rights in the North: “We have ended dictatorship in Seoul, now it’s time to do away with the much bloodier dictatorship in Pyongyang.”
The negotiations to free Kim and his “confederates” were hard going. There was a lot of noise in the media, letters from relatives to Chinese President Hu Jintao and hunger strikes by ruling party MPs in front of the Chinese embassy. The issue was even discussed during a visit to South Korea by Chinese Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu, after which the South Koreans were released on July 7, 2012.
After his release, Kim accused the Chinese authorities of torturing him and his associates and said that North Korea was probably to blame for his harsh treatment, but he failed to generate the level of interest in the issue that he needed.
I should also mention the confession much touted by North Korea made by a man named Jon Yong Chol, who had planned to commit an act of sabotage in North Korea on behalf of US and South Korea intelligence officers and who gave a press conference about that on July 19, 2012.
The 52-year-old Jon said that in 2010 he succumbed to the promises of a group of anti-North Korean activists and the offer of easy money and defected from North Korea to South Korea, where people began trying to convince him to return to North Korea and carry out acts of sabotage. The mission Jon was allegedly given by South Korean intelligence with the consent of US authorities was to blow up a statue of Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder. The bombings were supposed to take place in February, then they were postponed to April, and then they were postponed again because the special explosive devices were not ready. Jon eventually returned to his homeland and surrendered to the authorities.
The North Korean media gives a slightly different version of events (Jon did not surrender but was arrested while carrying out a reconnaissance) and named his employers more precisely — Kim Song-min, a member of the so-called Front for the Liberation of the North Korean People and the associated Tonkamo organization (a Korean society for demolition of bronze statues). They provided a very interesting text that supposedly belonged to his employers: “We have disseminated leaflets and publications against the North,” they said, “but nothing came of it. If we carry out an attack on April 15, it will shock the world! The sabotage should show everyone that it was carried out not by foreign forces but by the North Koreans themselves. Do you understand?” I should point out, of course, that other defectors say Jon was involved in drug trafficking and smuggling people together with Chinese “brokers” and was only interested in how easily and quickly he could make money. His bad reputation stands witness against him, and therefore we cannot completely rule out the possibility that it is a false accusation. On the other hand, he is the sort of person that is often recruited for jobs like this in which the life of the individual performing them is unimportant.
Finally, I should mention a series of incidents that took place against the backdrop of the worsening relations between the two Koreas. There was the incident in Paju five days after the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in which a howitzer shell fired accidentally from the South Korean side exploded in the South Korean half of the DMZ, falling short of the North by a miracle. Or the one in which South Korean Marines fired on a South Korean aircraft they mistook for a North Korean military transport plane.
Of course, there is no possibility of that group doing anything serious. However, because of the way the situation is understood in South Korea and the United States, it is entirely capable of organizing a provocation that would force Seoul and Washington to do their job for them. For example, should there be another event similar to the sinking of the Cheonan in April 2013 at a time when the situation is exacerbated by a missile test, matters could very well escalate into a retaliatory strike on North Korean territory. I have warned of that possibility repeatedly.
Perhaps not coincidentally, when the crisis began to ease, the United States drastically cut funding for anti-communist organizations in South Korea — particularly the North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity (NKIS) group, which acquired notoriety for news about the persecution of Christians or for rumors that North Korean soldiers guarding nuclear test sites are starving to death.
Something similar can be seen in official Seoul’s actions. Although on April 15 protesters staged a rally during which they burned portraits of the Kims, they were not allowed to release balloons with pamphlets from an area closed to civilians on that occasion. A group of defectors was stopped by police and turned back.
So, let’s wait and see what happens after Kenneth Bae’s trial. The incident could lead to a change in regional policy and cause those who enjoy rocking the boat to dissociate themselves from it no matter what slogans they have hidden behind in the past.
Konstantin Asmolov, Cand. Sc. (History), is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies. Exclusively for New Eastern Outlook.