Torture and “Public Security”: Kim Young-hwan’s Captivity and Sino-ROK Relations

By | August 01, 2012 | 5 Comments

Kim Young-hwan, right, and three other activists detained in China for almost four months arrive in Incheon International Airport on July 20, 2012, upon being released by Chinese authorities. | Via JoongAng Ilbo

Speculation about reformist twinges in North Korea notwithstanding, there can be little doubt that the DPRK has been making a series of what could be characterized as hard-line moves in and along its northern border area.  The recent assertions that Chinese territory is being used as a literal launching ground for acts of “political terrorism” against the DPRK indicate that the trend toward vigilance is continuing.  China’s reluctance to pick up on, much less amplify, Pyongyang’s recent media offensive on the subject of defectors and cross-border violence indicates that Beijing regards the matter with more than a bit of squeamishness, and does not wish to encourage spontaneous cross-border “preventative action” by North Korean border guards.     

China and the DPRK appear to be united in the desire for order along the border, if not without areas of disagreement. China has been undertaking an ongoing crackdown on illegal activity in Yanbian, while expanding the public discussion of the problem in PRC media.  According to Asahi Shimbun, the question of North Korean troops on islands leased to China near the border city of Sinuiju has become another stumbling block to security cooperation in the border zone.  A series of recent meetings took place between the Public Security officials on both sides.  Witness to Transformation runs down some of the recent activity, and there remains much to document in the “border security” category.

Brian Gleason, observing events from Seoul, deconstructs the case of one man whose treatment in captivity in Dandong dwells in an unpleasant recess in the façade of Sino-North Korean security cooperation. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

Torture and “Public Security”: Kim Young-hwan’s Captivity and Sino-ROK Relations  

by Brian Gleason

North Korean human rights activist Kim Young-hwan was finally released on July 20 after 114 days in a Chinese prison, but emerging details of his incarceration and alleged torture have sparked a growing sense of outrage among many South Korean citizens and human rights advocates around the world.

Kim’s promotion of democracy and human rights from the Chinese city of Dandong had clearly vexed the authorities in Beijing and Pyongyang, who may have been cooperating when they interrogated Kim and three other South Korean activists in the Chinese port /border city in Liaoning Province. Kim, however, was a complicated target, having once been a leading South Korean proponent of juche ideology, imprisoned and tortured in the ROK in the 1980s for his pro-North Korean proclivities.

In a twist of fate, Kim Young-hwan eventually turned against the North Korean regime; some believe this betrayal is one of the prime reasons that Kim was arrested and interrogated on the Sino-North Korean border. In order to fully understand the context of Kim’s arrest, surreptitious detention and alleged torture, it is essential to first look back at his storied past to gain insight into the man who transformed from Kim Il Sung’s disciple to ideological enemy.

Kim Yong Hwan’s Ideological Transformation | In 1982, Kim Young-hwan entered Seoul National University’s School of Law, where he spread North Korea’s juche ideology among his fellow students. NKnet provides a full summary of his pro-North Korean activities, including his establishment of the Save the Nation Student Federation (구국학생연맹) in 1986, which was regarded as the “the first illegal juche faction” in the history of the South Korean student movement. Kim was imprisoned for two years due to his affiliation with the organization, but upon his release, he formed other pro-North organizations and remained determined to spread the juche ideology in South Korea. In 1991, Kim Young Hwan even traveled secretly to the North via submarine, where he established relationships with North Korean officials and twice met his ideological idol, Kim Il Sung.

Ironically, it was his meeting with Kim Il Sung that changed everything for Kim Young-hwan. According to the New York Times: “The activist said he found a babbling, ignorant autocrat, not the fierce nationalist and former anti-imperialist guerrilla leader he had helped lionize. On his return home, he became a vocal opponent of North Korea.”

Back in South Korea, Kim Young-hwan eventually met the original creator of the juche idea, Hwang Jang Yop, who had defected to the South in 1997. The two became close, and in 1999 they started working together on a plan to restore the “true juche” ideology that Kim Il Sung had distorted. Two years later, Kim Young Hwan became a key founder of the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights, whose mission is synonymous with its name.

Arrest and Secretive Incarceration | In his newfound capacity as promoter of North Korean human rights, Kim Young-hwan often traveled to the Sino-North Korean border to help North Korean refugees. Getting swept up into a larger national and regional crackdown in the PRC, Kim and three of his fellow South Korean colleagues were arrested in the large port city of Dalian on March 29 for “endangering national security.” The Daily NK highlighted the strange circumstances surrounding the group’s subsequent incarceration, including plausible North Korean involvement in the interrogation:

The actions of the Chinese authorities in the case to date serve to lend weight to the hypothesis of North Korean involvement. First, it is odd that while Kim was arrested in Dalian, instead of being questioned there or taken to provincial HQ in Shenyang, he was transferred across to Dandong on the Sino-North Korean border. That a foreign national arrested as a risk to national security would be taken to a small city on the margins of the province in question certainly looks suspicious, particularly when that city is one that is regularly visited by anti-espionage agents from North Korea’s National Security Agency or General Reconnaissance Bureau of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces.

While there is DPRK Consulate in Shenyang and North Korean agents could presumably travel there with ease if authorized, Kim’s detention in Dandong would appear to support the hypothesis that the activist was being held in the border city to facilitate Chinese security collaboration with North Korean colleagues with regard to his case.

Despite South Korean officials’ repeated demands for information about the charge of “endangering national security”– which can lead to the death penalty under the PRC’s stringently-worded legal code – the ROK efforts were repeatedly rebuffed. The South Korean government requested consular contact with Kim, but they were denied for a month before finally gaining access on April 26. The other three South Korean men detained along with Kim – namely Yoo Jae-gil, Kang Shin-sam, and Lee Sang-yong, all pictured above – purportedly waived their right to a meeting with the South Korean Consulate-General, this story is highly doubtful.[1]

Due to the combination of international publicity, Chinese secrecy surrounding the incarceration and interrogation of the men, and pressure from the South Korean government mounted, and the European Parliament eventually drafted a resolution on May 24 demanding Kim Young-hwan’s release and asking for other improvements in human rights in both PRC and DPRK.

Ministerial-Level Attention |  Kim’s case almost certainly came up at meetings between Meng Jianzhu and Korean counterparts and leaders:

ROK President Lee Myung-bak (Right) and Chinese State Councillor and Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu meet in Seoul to discuss, among other topics, Kim Young Hwan and other South Koreans in Chinese captivity. | Image via Xinhua.

Approximately 2 weeks later and a week after Kim Young Hwan released Meng Jianzhu (Right) meets with Ri Myong-su, DPRK Minister for Public Security in Beijing. | Via NK Leadership Watch

Torture and Release |  In spite of the international attention, the Chinese authorities were apparently undeterred in their decision to torture Kim via electrocution and other undisclosed methods.[2] Although the Chinese authorities have denied the allegations of torture, Kim claims that his interrogators went so far as to play loud music while they tortured him to cover up the screams.

Ultimately as Kim tells it, the Chinese authorities released Kim on two conditions; that he must admit to violating Chinese law and promise to “never mention a thing about the cruel treatment” he received from state security. Kim firmly rejected both demands, stating that due to his study of Chinese law while in prison, he was certain that neither he nor his colleagues had “endangered state security.” Now safely back home in South Korea, Kim is revealing his treatment in China to the world, drawing the ire of many South Koreans and other human rights activists.

Kim Young-hwan, center, faces the media at a July 25 press conference after his release; Saenuri Party lawmaker Ha Tae Kyung sits at his left | Image courtesy Daily NK

Strained Sino-ROK Relations | Despite China’s status as South Korea’s top trading partner, Sino-ROK relations are often fraught with controversy, and this case touched upon a number of raw nerves. Kim Young-hwan’s case highlights several aspects of the bilateral disputes, especially perceptions of China as a human rights violator and domineering neighbor that lacks the proper respect for South Korea.

By initially denying South Korea’s requests for consular access to the four men and then subsequently brushing aside allegations of torture, South Korean officials have been embarrassed and forced by a public outcry to ask China for a reinvestigation into the matter. Ha Tae-keung, a human rights activist and member of the South Korean National Assembly, noted that “China is treating a campaigner for democracy in North Korea as if he were one of its dissidents. I believe North Korea is behind this and that China is effectively acting on its behalf.” After protests earlier this year in front of the Chinese embassy regarding the repatriation of North Korean refugees, some South Korean editorials are now demanding that China apologize for torturing a South Korean citizen.

Brian Gleason is an M.A. candidate in Global Studies at Yonsei University and the Analyst for Refugee Issues at SinoNK.com. 

Preferred Citation: Brian Gleason, “Torture and ‘Public Security’: Kim Young-hwan’s Captivity and Sino-ROK Relations,” SinoNK.com, August 1, 2012.

Full Essay in pdf.: Gleason on Kim Young-hwan


[1] According to the Committee for the Release of North Korea Human Rights Activist Kim Young Hwan, which also fought for the release of the other three men, their rejection of consular contact was likely coerced.

[2] Kim has declined to elaborate on the other methods of torture, stating, “If I get into specifics, I think the North Korean human rights issue will get buried beneath the Chinese human rights issue, and I understand the diplomatic authorities have already raised the issue.”

5 Comments

  1. I’m glad to see you cover KYH. Unfortunately have just had time to skim your article, but wanted to provide some initial feedback.

    Mr. Kim said at his press conference last week that for the first few days they didn’t appear to know who he was — it appears he and the other 3 were caught up in a sting of someone else the Chinese gov’t had been following for a while.

    The NY Times quote was a bit misleading (not saying it was so intentionally) — he didn’t change his mind right away after upon returning to SK. Several months later he got orders from the North to start an underground party, which he did for a few/several years (along with Lee Seok Ki, interestingly). But seeds of doubt had been sown. My understanding is that the biggest factor of doubt coming from the visit for him (bigger than his meetings with Kim Il Sung) was that he realized there wasn’t academic freedom in NK — he wanted to discuss the Juche philosophy (he was a true believer) but when he asked questions of professors, academics, etc., he seemed to keep getting the same answers. Also, I’m not sure how much it affected him specifically (surely a lot), but the turning point in the thinking for most of the founders of NKnet came with the famine and the resulting increase in (starting of?) contact with defectors/refugees from NK.

    About the torture — that story has come out in the last few days (he now is talking about it in detail in interviews) and there’s a lot of it in the English press. (At the press conference last week he said he didn’t want to detract from his mission, which is NK human rights/democracy.) I actually wanted to post a list of articles and excerpts from them today on the NKnet site but didn’t get it finished, hopefully can do so by Friday.

    Oh, another direction of the coverage now is the media talking to other SK activists who have been tortured — including Yoo Sang Joon, who’s story formed the basis of the movie Crossing. (He was caught a year or two ago after going back as an SK citizen to help NK refugees.)

  2. Thanks for the comment, Dan. If you get that list of links compiled, please go ahead and drop it in as a comment or I can add it i n the intro to Brian’s piece.

  3. Thanks for the additional info Dan- I’d love to discuss this further. I didn’t come across anything in my research, including the NKnet article I referenced, about Kim Young-hwan’s realization (that North Korea lacks academic freedom) being his biggest reason to doubt the North. If he realized this while in North Korea and this was indeed a turning point, I’m wondering why he would continue carrying out pro-North activities for the next few years. Of course, the same question applies to the NYT quote: If Kim Young-hwan was so disillusioned with Kim Il Sung after meeting him, why did Kim Young-hwan subsequently follow orders from North Korea to start an underground party? If you have anything to send me about this issue, including his thoughts on academic freedom in the North, I would really appreciate it. (You have my email address so perhaps we can continue the discussion via email).

    As you mentioned, with the revelation that other South Korean activists have also been tortured, this is a developing story that needs to be followed closely.

  4. Kim Young Hwan held a press conference at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club (SFCC) on August 6, 2012. The former Juche promoter-turned North Korean human rights activist talks of the torture he received in China, being denied consular access for 29 days, his plans now that he is free, the South Korean government, what he was doing in China, what he sees happening in North Korea under Kim Jong Un, why he suspects North Korea was involved in his case, and the underground movement for democracy in North Korea. In the video Kim and some others speak in Korean, but English translation is provided.
    Ah yes, the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snYE9zm-RBs

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