The so-called Wangjaesan scandal, which has seen 40 members of an anti-state group put under investigation on suspicion of possible links to espionage activities, now includes local government officials and a former secretary to the Chairman of the National Assembly, leading to fears that supporters of the North Korean regime may have infiltrated some of the highest institutions in South Korea.
If the details of the organization and its scale are as big as feared, it could have an enormous effect on the political sphere. Indeed, the suspicion that a number of high profile officials from the minority Democratic Labor Party could be involved in the latest scandal has led to predictions of a re-run of the Ilshimhoe spy scandal of 2006.
Because the Ilshimhoe scandal first broke due to the split between the National Liberation and People’s Democracy groups, whose remnants spread far and wide in progressive circles, controversy looks set to be reignited within other left-wing parties over their own links with the North Korean regime as well. The DLP, the New Progressive Party (NPP) and other left wing groups are currently in discussion over the creation of a new leftist group, tentatively named the ‘New Popular Progressive Party’ to fight next year’s elections, and hope to have concluded a deal by September 4.
Therefore, it is very possible that the Wangjaesan scandal could ultimately have a negative effect on the left’s hopes of putting forward a united ‘anti-Grand National Party’ front at the general and presidential elections next year.
The individuals involved in the latest scandal were first able to enter politics following Kim Dae Jung’s election as president in 1998. It was the first appearance for members of the ’386 Generation’ in the public sphere.
The DLP, formed shortly after that in 2000 to advocate a progressive agenda, saw its influence expand in 2004 when it won 10 seats at the 17th National Assembly election. Under the Roh Moo Hyun government, it became even easier for supporters of the North Korean regime to move up through the ranks.
One statement by Moon Jae In, head of the Roh Moo Hyun Foundation (and his former Chief of Staff), even indicates that the Roh administration at one point intended to select the DLP’s preferred candidate for Labor Minister, showing that the government of the day had a close relationship with the DLP.
Because of this connection, some people believe that the DLP, which acted as a political foothold for North Korean regime sympathizers during the ten years of the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun administrations, has been playing a significant role in cultivating such espionage activities.
Ha Tae Gyung, the head of Open Radio for North Korea who was once a leading figure in the South Korean Federation of University Student Councils as a Seoul University as a physics major in the second half of the 1980s, agrees with this view. He told The Daily NK, “The DLP, which is well connected with North Korea as a home for South Korean proponents of the Juche ideology, has always been nurturing groups that support the North Korean regime.”
“The DLP is the first place the North Koreans look when they need a partner within South Korea, North Korea’s number 1 tool for its maneuvers,” Ha continued, citing the Ilshimhoe scandal as a prime example.
Ha also questions whether the Wangjaesan scandal might not be just the tip of the iceberg for revolutionary groups in South Korea, and asserts a high chance that the recent activity is linked to the South Korean political calendar, especially with upcoming elections next year.
“Every time there has been a major event on the calendar in South Korea, the North has intervened in some way to serve its own interests. And now that we have the general and presidential elections coming up, I’m sure they have already formed some sort of task force to conduct secretive political interventions,” Ha predicted.
It is not surprising that the DLP itself rejects claims of the involvement of some of its current and former members and local government figures in the scandal. If it turns out that the Wangjaesan scandal is a follow-up to the Ilshimhoe scandal, it is quite possible that denunciations of the party’s liking for the North Korean regime, a liking which has passed by unnoticed so far in the merger process, will become a much bigger and more destructive issue.
Cleverly, it was actually the progressive bloc that first brought the latest investigation to light, with Lee Jeong Hee, president of the DLP, getting ahead of the authorities’ formal announcement of the investigation at a gathering last Wednesday to celebrate her first year as head of the party by saying, “Every time the administration is in crisis, we see the reappearance of suppression. It is extremely crude and underhanded. This will bring the end of this dictatorial administration closer.”
The DLP was hit hard in 2006 for receiving money and orders from North Korea, and appears to have decided to grasp the nettle this time around so as to try and limit the damage.
As part of which, progressive parties are also maintaining that this is merely an isolated espionage incident, and say that this fact is proven by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) changing the case name from ‘Iljinhoe’ to ‘Wangjaesan’.
However, in all cases involving the uncovering of spy groups within South Korea to date, the South Korean and North Korean codenames have been different, leaving open the distinct possibility that both ‘Iljinhoe’ and ‘Wangjaesan’ have been in use at the same time. Ha Tae Gyung agrees with this assessment, saying, “There is a chance that both names are in use. Maybe they call their group ‘Iljinhoe’ amongst themselves while ‘Wangjaesan’ is the name given to them by North Korea.”
History backs Ha’s claim; North Korea referred to Minhyukdang (People’s Democratic Revolutionary Party, a big underground group in the 1990s) as ‘Gwanaksan’. The head of Minhyukdang, current Zeitgeist researcher Kim Young Hwan, also communicated with North Korea under the name ‘Gwanaksan 1’.
Minhyukdang remained South Korea’s biggest underground group for a number of years. Kim Young Hwan himself entered North Korea at the invitation of Kim Il Sung, but became sceptical upon seeing the reality and ended up seeking a change in the direction of the movement. In 1994, the Minhyukdang leadership split over his and others’ calls to change direction. Some have wondered whether the formation of Iljinhoe in 1994 was a rushed attempt to create a new underground group that could act as a substitute for Minhyukdang.
Regardless, North Korea appeared to favor setting up Minhyukdang as the core group within South Korea, with a number of regional groups to support it. It is from this perspective that a number of people have suggested that the Wangjaesan scandal may only be one part of wider North Korean espionage operations in the South.