Speculators and specters

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Speculators and specters

A specter is loose. After lurking in the back alleys, it has become bold enough to come out into the daylight. It stepped into the limelight after the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome scare slowly slid off the stage. It stole the show in the media. It is quickly seeping into society like the seasonal unwelcome visit of red tide. It has no form but is eerily present. I am talking about defectors from North Korea.

The stories of defection get bolder and more spectacular. High-level officials have reportedly fled North Korea. Some were claimed to be members of “Room 38” of the Korean People’s Army that is in charge of raising foreign currency and overseeing slush funds for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his family and one reportedly was a key government figure responsible for the arms industry.

A specific name stood out - Lieutenant General Pak Sung-won, a deputy chief of the General Staff of the North Korean Army who had been part of the North Korean delegation at the inter-Korean defense talks. About 200 workers, dispatched overseas to raise hard currency for a country that has been under heavy United Nations and international sanctions, refused to comply with Pyongyang’s summons to return. From the bout of recent reports, we are seeing a mass exodus of North Koreans fleeing the country during a reign of terror by Kim Jong-un. The young leader has reportedly executed 70 officials since taking power in late 2011.

From what has been reported, North Korea may be falling apart and Kim is resorting to the use of terror because he, despite being in power for four years, is still not stable. The grinding of the rumor mill is boisterous and yet clumsy. None of the stories sound credible. Reports about General Pak Jae-kyong, a leader during the Kim Jong-il era, raise questions. The news bodes well for Seoul’s military and spy agency, but these reports are trotted out without any discretion. How defectors fled and where they went never has been clarified. There has been no follow-up on a North Korean senior banker who reportedly sought asylum last August.

The media is reckless and poor at its rumor-mongering job. An anchor at a news channel asked a reporter in the studio speaking on the issue where all these defectors were.

The reporter lamely answered, “One thing is for sure. They aren’t in South Korea.” The reporter stuttered as the anchor kept asking about them. Other news was similar - shallow and questionable.

Defection reports must be accurate because of their ramifications. The government called in news editors of broadcasters and newspapers when Hwang Jang-yop - the highest North Korean to defect to South Korea to date ? sought asylum at the Korean embassy in Beijing in February 1997. The media was fed with details and asked for cooperation in keeping the story confidential until procedures were completed. After strenuous diplomatic negotiations, Hwang was able to arrive in Seoul through the Philippines 67 days later. In September 1982, Yi Han-young, a nephew of Kim Jong-il who sought asylum at the Korean mission in Switzerland where he was studying, had to go through six countries before he arrived in Seoul. High-level defections therefore should not be dealt with purely out of curiosity.

A recent series of defection stories has no credibility. Kim Kwan-jin, security advisor to the president, reportedly asked his aides about the news reports. There cannot be any truth to the stories if a security adviser who reports directly to the president knows nothing of them.

Pyongyang has flatly denied the reports. A senior official at the Ministry of Unification said the ministry was also startled by all the rumors about defectors while Seoul was trying to mend ties with Pyongyang through aid to North Korea during its drought. But overall, Seoul authorities are ambiguous, saying they cannot confirm intelligence information. The National Assembly, which should be calling in government authorities to check on the news, is busy with political wrangling. The U.S. State Department declined to comment and said the issue should be clarified in Seoul. We have often brought about embarrassment for ourselves from defection reports.

The hyped reports on Gil Jae-kyong, a director for the North Korean leader who handled funds of the Kim family and was said to be trying to defect to the United States in May 2003, turned out to be baseless and created much humiliation for the Korean media and spy agencies. The so-called exclusive report by Yonhap News Agency was retracted when the JoongAng Ilbo journalists produced a photo of Gil’s tomb; he had died three years earlier. Local media outlets all carried a CNN report in May citing a so-called informant from North Korea who claimed that Kim Kyong-hee, sister of Kim Jong-il, had been poisoned by her nephew, who had purged and executed her husband in spectacular fashion.

The Korean government and media have not learned from their mistakes. North Korea is a secretive nation where signs of changes must be surmised from testimony and puzzle-matching of individual events. An influential person can suddenly disappear and then mysteriously reappear. When dealing with such a complicated and opaque regime, reports must strictly be based on facts and cross-checked intelligence information. There are too many North Korean “experts” and “sources.” Instead of competitively chasing rumors, the media must use stricter guidelines for North Korea stories so that they are not treated as bizarre sensational stories that only undermine the credibility of North Korean defectors.

It appears to be true that Kim’s reign of terror has rocked the elite in North Korea. Many hope to defect to other countries. Some could be as prominent as Hwang. But reports must not be based on theories and wishful thinking. Propaganda warfare may have worked in the Cold War era, but our path to unification is too valuable to be wasted on vague theories.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 8, Page 28

*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo special writer for unification.

by Lee Young-jong

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