Methodical oppression on intelligence agents

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Methodical oppression on intelligence agents

Chang Se-jeong

The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Amid tensions between the two Koreas and a severe internal split in South Korea, collecting information on North Korea or working in an operation against the North is an extremely dangerous job. The following are stories of two men who were labeled spies by the Moon Jae-in administration, although they made sacrifices for their country despite the North’s vicious threats.

They are Lee Yun-keol, a North Korean defector who operates the North Korea Strategic Information Service Center, and retired Army Colonel Jeong Gyu-pil, a veteran agent against the North. They both said they want the truth to be revealed about the National Intelligence Service (NIS) and the prosecution’s unreasonable attempts to accuse them of being spies during the Moon administration.

Lee, 54, was at the bottom of the social hierarchy in the North because he was born to a devout Christian family. His relatives had already defected to South Korea. Miraculously, he managed to study at one of the top three universities in the North and worked as a researcher in the Mt. Chongam Research Institute under the Longevity Research Center for Kim Il Sung. In 2005, he defected to the South with a determination to change the North Korean regime.

After receiving a bio-engineering doctoral degree from Chungnam National University, Lee cooperated with intelligence authorities, including the Ministry of Unification, the NIS and the Korea Defense Intelligence Command (KDIC) to collect inside information on North Korea and offer analysis. He made headlines in April 2012 by obtaining Kim Jong-il’s will just four months after his death in December 2011.

In November 2012, he wrote a book, “Kim Jong-il’s Will and Kim Jong-un’s Future,” predicting the purge of Jang Song-thaek, uncle of Kim Jong-un, which took place just one month later, proving his credibility. Based on inside information from North Korea, Lee claimed that the North would not surrender its nuclear and biochemical weapons and missiles unless the regime collapsed because they are the bulwarks of the Kim dynasty. Rightwing politicians in the South welcomed his argument, but the leftists attacked him by arguing that he was a defector, therefore a traitor.

After the Democratic Party scored an overwhelming victory in the June 13, 2018 local elections, the NIS raided Lee’s home and office at 8 a.m. the next day. On June 21, Lee made public a photo of a North Korean ship smuggling fuel oil at the port of Dandong in violation of UN sanctions on North Korea. On July 16, he was detained on charges of violating the law governing military secrets.
The NIS and the prosecution were investigating allegations that former and incumbent officers of the KDIC had leaked military secrets. They implicated Lee in the case. He was accused of selling intelligence on North Korea to Japan. “I was enraged because I had worked for the Republic of Korea,” Lee recalled. “I once thought about killing myself to make a protest.”
Lee went to trial and a district court convicted him of spying on Jan. 31, 2019. He was given a suspended two-year prison term.
Released from detention, Lee prepared his arguments meticulously and the conviction was overturned by the Seoul High Court on July 26, 2019. On October 31, the Supreme Court finalized his acquittal.
Why did Lee face such an absurd situation? “I think North Korea probably told the [Moon administration] to get rid of me because I kept obtaining the North’s secret information. When the Moon administration was pushing forward inter-Korean talks and North-U.S. talks, I argued that Kim Jong-un had no intention to give up nuclear weapons so the nuclear crisis will never be resolved, based on information from the North such as Kim Jong-il’s will and his memoir. I was a headache to the Moon administration, controlled by former student activists adhering to the juche ideology,” he said.
“I have a good guess who orchestrated the attempt to detain me. I did the right thing for freedom and unification. The people who made me suffer are criminals,” he continued. “Those who violated the Constitution of the Republic of Korea must be punished.”
Lee also criticized the Moon administration for “buying time for the North to reinforce its nuclear and missile programs,” adding that Kim Jong-un has recently enacted a law that allows its preemptive use of nukes. “When the North Korean regime collapses and the two Koreas are united, the biggest worry for the supporters of juche ideology is that their collaboration with North Korea will be laid bare,” he said. “We must correct the wrongdoings of the Moon administration.”
Former Army Col. Jeong Gyu-pil, known as the best military intelligence officer against North Korea, was born in Pohang, North Gyeongsang. After graduating from the Korea Military Academy and before leaving the service in 2019, he served for 37 years. A veteran of the intelligence department, he headed the Headquarters Intelligence Detachment (HID) — a unit dispatched to North Korea to collect information from human sources (Humint) — as a captain in 1991. Since then till 2017, he served as an agent specializing in North Korea for the Ministry of National Defense, the Intelligence Headquarters of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the KDIC for 26 years.
Leaving his family, Lee worked as a “black op agent” in the border areas of North Korea, China and Russia. He also worked as a military attaché for the Korean Embassy in China for 14 years. After the North’s torpedoing of the Cheonan warship and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, he was urgently dispatched to China to establish a hotline with the North.
After President Moon took office in May 2017 following the impeachment and removal of his predecessor, Jeong returned from China and left military service at the end of March 2019, 18 months before his official retirement age. “I was excited to enjoy my freedom because I became a civilian for the first time since my high school graduation,” he said. But on May 14 that year, 21 NIS agents raided his small apartment for 22 hours before accusing him of leaking military secrets. He lived an honorable life serving his country, but it was turned upside down.
“If I have anything I want to hide from the country and the people, I will disembowel myself on Gwanghwamun Square,” he told the NIS agents.
Lee Yun-keol, top, a North Korean defector who operates the North Korea Strategic Information Service Center, and Ret. Army Col. Jeong Gyu-pil, a veteran agent, want the truth to be revealed about the National Intelligence Service and the prosecution’s attempts to accuse them of being spies during the Moon Jae-in administration. [NEWS1]

“To avoid any misunderstanding, I gladly gave them the password for my computer, but the situation turned weird. As time went on, my emotions fluctuated,” he said. “I felt it was unfair that I had lived such a dangerous life when no one recognizes it. I was angry at the country I trusted deeply. I remembered that I starved myself for one week with just 10 yuan when I was working as a black op agent at the China-North border. My heart almost stopped due to sadness. I ended up being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance.”
He underwent multiple questionings at the NIS and Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office and was cleared on Feb. 18, 2020 of the charges that he had leaked military secrets. The information the NIS claimed he had leaked were actually what he had collected and reported to the intelligence unit in the past. After clearing him of the charge, the prosecution still indicted him on charges of collecting and possessing military secrets without authorization. It was a shock for him. “Before leaving the military, I deleted all data from my computer. But the NIS restored it and asked the prosecution to indict me,” he said.
During his trial, Lee argued that the confidential information he reported in 2013 was already declassified. He also claimed that the prosecution’s indictment of him did not make sense under the Military Secret Protection Act.
But the Seoul Central District Court convicted him in July and handed down a suspended six-month jail term. Jeong immediately appealed the ruling. “While working for the military for 37 years, I was able to dodge all enemy bullets aiming for my face, but I was not able to avoid our force’s axe from behind,” he said.
Jeong recently filed a petition with the presidential office to investigate the NIS’s attempt to fabricate a case against him. “I sacrificed myself for 37 years to serve the country, but I was wrongfully accused of being a spy. As a result, all Humint organizations that handle intelligence on North Korea — including military operations unit against the North, the KDIC, the Intelligence Headquarters of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as the military department at the Korean Embassy in China — were probed and ruined,” he wrote in the petition. “I request an investigation to reveal what the NIS did during the Moon presidency and restore the honor of the military intelligence units and organizations.”
During the military dictatorships, many people were wrongfully accused of espionage charges based on fabricated evidence. It is unexpected that the Moon administration — which persistently championed the slogan of “People come first” for five years — accused Jeong of being a spy. “During the Moon presidency, the NIS acted based on the juche supporters’ scenario to destroy defectors and North Korea intelligence agents whose activities were harmful to the North,” Jeong said.
The alleged trumped-up espionage charges against Ret. Col. Jeong were mentioned during a National Assembly hearing on Sept. 20. Prime Minister Han Duk-soo said an audit can take place if necessary, adding that the truth will eventually be revealed. The Moon administration needs to answer one more suspicion.
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