On October 24th, 2006, South Korea’s 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 Korea’s 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 triumvirate’s secret meetings
with North Korean operatives led to the rapid expansion of an existing
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 organization’s
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 prosecution’s 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
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 party’s core membership
to North Korea. This led to a schism within the party between the now National Liberation (NL) and People’s 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 Pyongyang’s
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 Hwan’s 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.