When the enemy of my enemy becomes my friend: the South Koreans who scratch Kim Jong-un’s back

Independent lawmaker Youn Mee-hyang addresses the 29th Candlelight Vigil held on March 4. (Image/ Yonhap News)

In a peculiar dynamic, North Korean media has been reporting on the activities of certain leftist lawmakers and activists in South Korea in a way that contributes to the idea that these figures are implicitly supporting the North. But the truth may be more simple.

The Workers’ Party Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported March 14 on ongoing candlelight protests in Seoul under the headline “The momentum to impeach Yoon Suk-yeol, a US war hawk, is intensifying in South Korean society.”

It covered a protest by Candlelight Action, an alliance of left-leaning civic groups, which demanded the resignation of President Yoon Suk-yeol and the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into allegations against his wife, Kim Keon-hee, as well as cessation of US-South Korea joint exercises and dissolution of the US-South Korea alliance. These all mirrored North Korea’s claims, surprising many.

The current government in South Korea has taken a different approach with North Korea than its predecessor. It characterizes the policies of the Moon Jae-in administration as “pro-North Korean” and “appeasement.” The Yoon administration says its peace policy is firmly based on principles. It also is concerned to address North Korean human rights issues and issued a “North Korean Human Rights Report” in March last year as part of that effort.

Defense Minister Shin Won-shik has emphasized the firm side of Yoon’s approach, saying that if North Korea provokes, it must be eliminated “forcefully to the end.”

North Korea has hit back at this stance. Rodong Sinmun said on March 5, 2023, “We have already warned that the so-called ‘immediate, strong, end’ principle could turn into ‘immediate death, forced death, end’ with the clamor of war hawks.”

Some members of the South Korean National Assembly have echoed the North’s criticisms.

One such figure is Youn Mee-hyang, the founder of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance, a comfort women support group. Youn was an Assembly seat by the Democratic Party in 2020, but was expelled from the party the following year after being convicted of embezzling donations. Since then, she has been active as an independent lawmaker and appears to be consistent in taking North Korea’s stance on issues, almost to the point of appearing like a spokesperson for the Workers’ Party.

For example, Youn was part of a press conference on February 1 urging passage of a “Special Law on Civilian Casualties in Vietnam by the Korean Military” to investigate issues of “rape, massacre” committed by Korean troops deployed to Vietnam 60 years ago. This issue was never raised by the Vietnamese government but taken up separately by South Korean lawmakers. Her position aligns with North Korea’s narrative, not out of concern for victims, but to use them to discredit South Korea. 

Youn created controversy when she attended a memorial event in Tokyo in September for Koreans massacred after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. Rather than attend the event held by the pro-South Korean Mindan residents association, she chose to go to a similar event on the same day organized by the pro-North Chongryon association.

Chongryon has an ugly history. It encouraged and arranged the migration to North Korea of 87,000 Korean residents and around 6,000 Japanese spouses. An estimated 10,000 of these returnees ended up in the gulag. One of its members shot and killed South Korean First Lady Yuk Young-soo during an assassination attempt on her husband, Park Chung-hee. Chongryon has long provided funds to North Korea and has been associated with kidnapping. The organization’s chairman and vice chairman were at the event with Youn. To give a sense of how this reflects on Youn, its former chairmen are buried in the Patriotic Martyrs’ Cemetery in Pyongyang. 

Pro-North Korean left-wing forces in South Korea have deep historical roots.

Contemporary politicians and activists on the political left are referred to as the 386 Movement. This moniker echoes the Intel 386 computer processor which came out in 1985 and the “3-8-6” refers to the age when the term was created (their 30s), the time they entered university (1980s) and when they were born (1960s). (They’ve since been rechristened “586”)

The 386 figures started their political life in the student movement. Their opposition to the Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship expanded into hatred of its allies, mostly the United States, and admiration for its enemies, particularly North Korea. A certain portion of the South Korean student movement became adherents of Kim Il-sung’s Juche ideology. 

They later established the goal not only of democratizing South Korean society but also establishing a socialist society like North Korea’s. This involved dismantling conglomerates, withdrawing US troops and dissolving the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the then-dictator of North Korea, welcomed this and even dispatched spies into South Korea to recruit and control them. In one remarkable case, a lady named Lee Sun-sil reportedly spent ten years in the South recruiting and training Juche followers before disappearing, presumably back north in 1990.

In 1989, the National Federation of University Students (Jeondaehyop) sent student Lim Su-kyung to Pyongyang as its representative to an international festival. 

After harsh reality struck in the 1990s with “the Arduous March” famine and the harrowing testimonies of defectors, these Juche fans in South Korea dissolved as if into thin air.

However, they later entered politics and joined civic groups. With the inauguration of Moon Jae-in in 2017, they emerged in large numbers. A leading example is Im Jong-seok, who served as Chief Presidential Secretary. Im was the third chairman of Jeondaehyop. Arrested in 1989 and sentenced to five years for violating the National Security Law, Im was released in a special amnesty in 1993. He went on to serve as a lawmaker for a district in Seoul for eight years and then, after losing an election, became the vice-mayor of Seoul.

Others such as Lee In-young, a lamaker and former Minister of Unification under Moon, and lawmaker Song Young-gil, a member of the National Assembly, also have backgrounds associated with the pro-North Korean faction. They hold a significant portion of seats in the National Assembly. 

They reject claims of being pro-North Korean, but many aspects of their statements and activities closely align with the positions of North Korea.

Consider, for example, the Democratic Party position on Japan’s planned release of nuclear-contaminated water in 2023. “The international community is pouring out curses and criticisms against the actions of the Japanese authorities, which seriously threaten the safety of humanity,” Rodong Sinmun said in August.

“Japan has crossed a line that should not be crossed,” Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung said. “The release of nuclear-contaminated water is a declaration of war against coastal nations in the Pacific. As the closest neighboring country and as South Korea is the one most affected, Japan must apologize.”

Lee took this position indicating that his party knew better than the experts at International Atomic Energy Agency which, in a report issued a month earlier, ruled Japan’s method of release was “in line with international standards” and that the impact of the release on human health and the environment would be “negligible.” 

Similarly, when North Korea called for the cessation of the joint US-South Korea military exercises and the dismantling of the US-South Korea alliance this month, Youn Mee-hyang held a joint press conference with lawmakers and civic groups that echoed its sentiments verbatim.

What are we to make of this apparent influence of North Korea on South Korean politicians and activists? Are they really pro-North Korean in the sense of knowingly acting in favor of Kim Jong-un and his regime? Are they fans of Juche and unaware that North Korea is an enemy of the country they represent?

Not according to one defector who has worked with some of them as a legislative assistant. 

“They understand South Korea’s liberal democratic system and possess a capitalist mindset more than anyone else,” said Jo, who defected in 2002 and is now a university professor. “Their continuation of pro-North Korean rhetoric and alignment with North Korea’s claims is merely due to their need to differentiate themselves.”

“They understand better than anyone else that we need to strengthen our response to North Korea and that we need to shed light on the human rights plight of North Korean citizens,” he said.

“However, if they were to take that line, they would only be echoing the sentiments of the ruling party,” he said. 

In other words, they wouldn’t be able to attract any attention. 

“You need fresh ideas to capture public attention. From that perspective, there are aspects of North Korea’s claims that may feel fresh to the public, and they take advantage of that.”

Jo said that from his personal experience, he found that the linking of leftist lawmakers is not significantly different from that of the ruling People Power Party. “They merely oppose for the sake of being different, regardless of whether it is right or wrong, and they end up aligning with North Korea’s claims. That is how the enemy of my enemy becomes my friend.”

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