Yearning for homeChung Shun-taek, 83, a former North Korean spy, lives in a room the size of a large closet in Gwanak district, southeastern Seoul. The lodging is free for Mr. Chung and two other erstwhile agents, who were released from prison although they have never renounced their allegiance to North Korea and its socialist system.
With his white hair and ruddy complexion, Mr. Chung looks like a well-worn scholar. He is reading a book titled “A Study of Ancient Joseon,” a history of the Korean dynasty that ended in 108 B.C.
He does not have to be prodded to speak about the North Korea he fondly remembers. How its socialist system pursues happiness for all members of its society, how it is free from foreign pressures and how it is superior to South Korea. He says social instability in the South is a result of the gap between the rich and poor.
“I am not a fanatic. But in essence, socialism is a process to correct the distortions of capitalism, and I agree with that,” he says. “I want to live in a stable society flowing with humanity, which was what North Korea was when I left it. That is why I want to return.”
Mr. Chung was captured in 1958 and imprisoned for 31 years. He has been living under surveillance for the last 14 years. He says his four sons are doing well in the North; one is a professor, two are engineers and the fourth is engaged in a “revolutionary mission.”
Mr. Chung is not alone in wanting to return to North Korea. There are 29 others like him ― former North Korean spies or people convicted under South Korea’s National Security Law.
Among them is his housemate, Kim Young-shik, 69, who was captured off Ulsan in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) while on a spy mission.
“South Korean society seems to lack social conscience,” Mr. Kim says. “Go to the police stations, and you will find hundreds of cases of people defrauding other people.”
In September 2000, the South Korean government allowed 63 long-term “prisoners of conviction” to leave the country ― mostly former North Korean spies who had spent an average of three decades in prison for espionage. The government says that they were the last of the North Korean agents captured and jailed in the South and that their release was the end of an unsavory chapter in Korean history.
“We conducted a study of 83 jailed spies in 2000, most of whom did not renounce their convictions. As far as we are concerned, there are no more long-term convicts remaining,” a Unification Ministry spokesman says.
The South Korean government's policy had been to release prisoners of conviction only when they disavowed their loyalty to North Korea and signed a document pledging to uphold the South Korean legal system. In July 1998, President Kim Dae-jung eased the strictures of the procedure, but the prisoners were still asked to write a letter saying they would abide by South Korean laws. That requirement was abolished two months ago as an infringement on human rights.
Kwon Oh-hun, who heads a support group for the former prisoners, says, “All of those requirements have been rescinded, and are no longer in effect.” Speaking of the fall of communism, he says, “We have to admit, as the world does, that these people were forced to denounce their faith under a now obsolete system. They should be treated humanely as brethren and as people who have suffered decades of imprisonment.”
Mr. Chung and Mr. Kim had already signed a document renouncing their loyalty to the North Korean system when the government decided to release former spies in 2000. The government rejected Mr. Chung’s application for freedom in 2000, noting that he had already given up his socialist convictions, unlike many of the 63 others who were released.
Officially, Mr. Chung rejected North Korean communism in 1985 in an effort to move from solitary confinement into the general prison population. “I began to have hallucinations, hear strange sounds and could not breathe,” he says. He suffered nightmares in which he saw his mother boiling to death in a pot and his son dying in a car crash.
Mr. Kim says he renounced his faith in the North’s system to end the torture he claims he suffered.
Mr. Chung did not discuss the torture in detail, although South Korean workers helping him say that his hearing was damaged by the abuse. He was provided with written questions for this interview, which he answered verbally.
The lives of Mr. Chung and Mr. Kim reflect the turbulent times surrounding the liberation of Korea from Japan in 1945. Mr. Chung was born in Jincheon, North Chungcheong province, in what was to become South Korea. He received an elite education, but went to the North voluntarily in 1949 to work as a government official there. He was sent to South Korea in 1958 as a political spy, but was immediately captured.
Mr. Kim was born in 1934 in Icheon, in North Korea’s Gangwon province, to a poor farming family. Tired of his indigence, he became active in Communist Party activities in 1945 after the war. He was sent to the South by the North Korean Workers’ Party in 1959, but was captured three years later and imprisoned for 26 years.
He has heard his family is in Hamheung in the North’s South Hamgyeong province. He does not realistically expect to ever live with them ― a wife, a son and a daughter ― but he still wants to return to North Korea.
Mr. Kwon of the support group says that he hopes the South Korean government will allow the former prisoners to return to the North. He says he plans to meet soon with the unification minister, Jeong Se-hyun, and the chief of the South Korean Red Cross, Suh Young-hoon, to discuss the issue.
“These people would not hurt South Korean society in any way, nor would they contribute to the North Korean system,” Mr. Kwon says, when asked if he was concerned that the former spies would be used for propaganda by the Pyeongyang government.
by Kim Ji-soo