Four civic activists allegedly took $20,000 from North Korea

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Four civic activists allegedly took $20,000 from North Korea

Four suspects enter the Cheongju District Court on Monday to attend a warrant hearing. They were suspected of receiving money and orders from North Korea and organizing protests and inter-Korean projects, contacting senior politicians and participating in the ruling Democratic Party's presidential campaign in 2017 and general election campaign in 2020. Three of them were detained on Monday. [YONHAP]

Four suspects enter the Cheongju District Court on Monday to attend a warrant hearing. They were suspected of receiving money and orders from North Korea and organizing protests and inter-Korean projects, contacting senior politicians and participating in the ruling Democratic Party's presidential campaign in 2017 and general election campaign in 2020. Three of them were detained on Monday. [YONHAP]

 
Four civic activists were suspected of having received at least $20,000 from North Korea, taken orders from Pyongyang to establish an underground organization and carried out activities benefiting the communist regime, according to sources informed about an investigation into their alleged National Security Act violations.
 
The National Intelligence Service (NIS) and the police are conducting a joint investigation into two men and two women on charges of having received orders from the North and staging a series of protests to oppose the South Korean military’s plan to procure U.S.-built stealth fighter jets. The Cheongju District Court on Monday issued warrants to allow the police to detain three of the four suspects over their alleged acts of benefiting the enemy, a crime punishable by the National Security Act.
 
Sources informed about the probe told the JoongAng Ilbo on Wednesday that the suspects had met with senior lawmakers of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) to carry out the North’s orders. They also participated in President Moon Jae-in’s campaign in the May 2017 snap election, according to the sources.
 
At their warrant hearing, police presented evidence to prove their charges, including some photos of the suspects’ meeting with North Korean agents in China. The photos showed two of the four suspects meeting three North Korean agents affiliated with the Cultural Exchange Bureau of the Workers’ Party.
 
Emails and other documents the suspects allegedly exchanged with the North were also presented at the hearing, the sources said. The North’s orders to the suspects and their reports to the North, as well as the suspects’ written pledge of allegiance to Pyongyang were reportedly presented as evidences at the warrant hearing.  
 
One of the suspects first met with North Korean agents in China in 2017 and received an order to establish an underground organization to work for Pyongyang, according to the sources. In the following years, the suspects had multiple encounters with the North Korean agents at restaurants and an outdoor terrace of a Starbucks cafe in China.  
 
The North paid $20,000 to the suspects to fund their activities, and one of the suspects picked up the money from a supermarket locker in Shenyang, China, and brought the cash into the South, the sources said.  
 
The suspects, however, denied all charges. “It does not make sense that they met North Korean agents at public spaces such as restaurants,” their lawyer said. “My clients said they met with consultants in China to talk about their children’s study abroad.”
 
The police and the NIS suspected that the North ordered the four activists to organize protests to oppose the procurement project of the F-35A stealth fighter jets. Their inter-Korean exchange projects of sending 1 million seedlings to the North, promoting a return visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and inviting over 500,000 people to create a “human chain” along the 500-kilometer (310-mile) demilitarized zone were also carried out to implement the North’s directives, the investigative authorities said.
 
The four were also suspected of participating in the DP’s election campaign for the 2020 general election based on the North’s orders.
 
For the seedlings project, the suspects met with senior leaders of the DP and Korea Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, investigative authorities said. The lawmakers told the JoongAng Ilbo that they had met with the activists, but they have no information about the ongoing investigation.  
 
Three of the four suspects were also members of a special advisory group on labor issues for Moon’s presidential campaign in 2017.  
 
Meanwhile, one of the four suspects, currently undergoing the probe without physical detention, told the JoongAng Ilbo that he and his fellow activists are victims of a political probe and illegal surveillance by state authorities. The suspect, surnamed Son, is an operator of an online news media outlet.  
 
“The NIS and police are treating all my nongovernmental group activities for the past 30 years as outcomes of the North’s orders,” he said. “I actually welcome this opportunity. It will show how civic groups’ activities can be judged by the National Security Act. My case will show why this law must be abolished.”  
 
Meanwhile, sources said Son had operated a fundraising activity in January this year to buy an advertisement on a liberal newspaper to demand the impeachment of then-Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl. Yoon, who stepped down in March and recently joined the main opposition People Power Party (PPP), has been the presidential frontrunner for months.  
 
According to the sources, Son organized a fundraising drive on Jan. 13 to collect 4 million won ($3,500) to buy an advertisement in The Hankyoreh newspaper to demand Yoon be impeached from prosecutor general.  
 
Yoon issued a statement through his spokesman on Thursday to deplore the case. “We demand a speedy explanation from President Moon and the ruling DP about this shocking spy case,” the statement said. “We want a clear explanation how the suspects were appointed as special advisors of Moon’s presidential campaign.”
 
“If any of the DP lawmakers had consulted with the suspects about their political activities, we want clear explanations,” the statement said.

BY SER MYO-JA, KIM SU-MIN, KIM MIN-JOONG [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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