The Road Chung Walked, from Traitor to Patriot

[imText1]When the North Korean authorities are seeking to inform the people of the glories of their system, it is standard practice to refer to South Chosun as “hell” and the Republic as “heaven on earth”. As for those entrepreneurs and politicians who were born in the North but moved to the South, they are just “traitors”.

But then there are those who have either belatedly returned to the North or have contributed to its societal development from afar; these people the North praises as “patriots”. The words of Kim Jong Il, written in a note to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the death of Hyundai Group founder Chung Ju Young last weekend, form part of this tradition. Chung was, Kim wrote, a “patriotic industrialist who contributed greatly to both patriotism and reunification”.

And how was this achieved? Chung, who was born in Tongchon in the North Korean part of Gangwon Province, was an unfamiliar figure until he sent 500 cows to the North in 1998. At the time, people in North Korea suggested that Chung had “brought back a herd of cows only after becoming rich and starting to feel guilty about the cows that he stole and took with him to the South.”

Regardless, during his visit to the North in 1998, Chung met with Kim Jong Il personally, whereupon the two finalized a deal to launch tours of Mt. Geumgang, a deal which, in the end, injected around $500 million into Kim Jong Il’s bank account and launched a decade of economic cooperation between Hyundai Asan and the North Korean regime. This, then, is how one goes from being a “traitor” or mere defector to a “patriotic industrialist”
Similar stories of redemption also surround Choi Duk Shin (1914~1987) and Choi Hong Hee (1918~2002), both of whom were once branded anti-communist fighters. There was a time when these men were “betrayers of country and the people”, quintessential “anti-communists” and “traitors” to the people; but things change.

Choi, who was born in Uiju, North Pyongan Province, fought in the Korean War as a division commander in the South Korean military. He was Minister of Foreign Affairs in the early 60s, and South Korea’s Ambassador to West Germany from 1963 to 1967. However, he defected to the North in 1986, thereafter acting as chairman of the Central Committee of the Chondoist Chong Wu Party, vice chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland and chairman of the Korean Religionists Council before his death.

The first three parts of a North Korean film entitled, “The People and Destiny”, deal with Choi’s life story. According to North Korean defectors who’ve seen it, the whole thing centers on how North Korea magnanimously accepts anyone who comes to the country, regardless of their past deeds, but that people who go the other way are doomed to lead a desolate life.

North Korea claims that Choi Hong Hee, the founder of the International Taekwondo Federation, or ITF, knew this fact all too well. Choi was born in Kilju, North Hamkyung Province, but served as the head of a South Korean military training camp, Commander of the 6th Corps, South Korea’s ambassador in both Vietnam and Malaysia and as President of the Korea Taekwondo Association.

Finally, however, Choi, who told those close to him that his wish was “to let this life, that has travelled all around the world, be buried in its hometown,” returned to North Korea on June 14, 2002. He died the following day. North Korea took a rather broader line, though, saying that Choi had discovered that “deserting the fatherland to go to South Chosun and abroad only makes one realize how great that fatherland is, and that existence beyond the bosom of the Dear Leader is like that of a fallen leaf.”

Parts six to ten of “The People and Destiny” deal with Choi’s story. Early in it he is portrayed as a traitor who deserts his nation and people. However, he then experiences life abroad and thus realizes, shortly before returning to Pyongyang, that “only to the bosom of the nation and the Great Leader” would he be able to “entrust his own destiny”.

North Korea portrays these people as active recipients of the magnanimous rule of the Kim family, a political creed which it alleges places more weight on the present than the past and accepts anyone who is prepared to sincerely repent his or her past and turn back to the North. Thus, North Korea proclaims the supremacy of its system.

Kang Mi Jin is a North Korean defector turned journalist who fled North Korea in 2009. She has a degree in economics and writes largely on marketization and economy-related issues for Daily NK. Questions about her articles can be directed to