Suspicion, Repentance and Finding Spies in South Korean Media

By | July 19, 2013 | 2 Comments

The saga of Chae mapped across Northeast Asia | Image: Chosun Daily

The saga of Chae mapped across Northeast Asia | Image: Chosun Ilbo

Suspicion, Repentance and Finding Spies in South Korean Media

by Darcie Draudt

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy… Defector? Though John le Carré has yet to write a New York Times best seller on a North Korean “mole” in South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS; 국정원)—and perhaps that’s for the best given the recent NIS scandal!—there is plenty of intrigue to be found in the digital pages of Yonhap and the Chosun Ilbo about alleged North Korean spies in South Korean society.

Last week, two high school students in Ulsan, South Korea were presented with an award for reporting two men they heard on the subway speaking to each other in a North Korean dialect. The next day, the girls shared their experience with their classroom teacher, who, despite thinking it was unlikely that the two men would be spies, advised them to report it to the local police. Despite the fact that the police were unable to track the two men, the students were rewarded with a “Security Commendation Medal” and a gift voucher.

“These young students did a praiseworthy and courageous thing at a time when awareness of national security is weakened,” said district chief of police Kim Dong-uk in the Yonhap wire story. “I hope they become a good model for other students and citizens.”

The identities of the two unknown men in Ulsan are still unknown—and likely to remain as such. However, sometimes the suspicions are justified, as shown in the July 15 arrest of Chae, a 48-year-old man from North Korea currently living in Seoul, who has been charged with violating South Korea’s National Security Law (국가보안법). Mr. Chae settled in South Korea ten years ago but later returned to work for the North Korean National Security Agency (NSA/국가안전보위부). The arrest followed the testimony of Ms. A, a 34-year-old woman who attempted to escape North Korea three times before arriving in South Korea this year. The story has appeared in several Korean-language media outlets, and it demarcates in detail two types of defectors settling in South Korea: one a victim/survivor, one a spy.

Type A: Spy | First, we come to know the story of Mr. Chae in the first part of the Chosun Ilbo’s coverage of the story:

In 2001, Chae (48) was drafted to track down defectors in the Chinese border regions. To make money, Mr. Chae played the role of broker who would entrap defectors and also sold antiques smuggled out of North Korea to Chinese people. Fearing he would be discovered, Mr. Chae came to South Korea by going through the consulate general in Shanghai in July 2003.

However, in December 2004 Mr. Chae tried to check the safety of his family left in North Korea, and called a manager in the North Hamgyeong Province NSA that he knew before leaving North Korea. Immediately afterward, Mr. Chae went to North Korea and received the order to kidnap defectors living in China. Two days later on the Chinese side of the Tumen River in the city of Tumen, Mr. Chae met two escaped soldiers and three people from Ms. A’s family “going to Seoul via Mongolia,” and, tricking them, handed them over to four agents from the NSA.

In June 2005, Mr. Chae was discovered through an investigation by the Public Security Bureau in China and was deported to South Korea. However, a South Korean investigative agency did not have any definite evidence of Mr. Chae’s activities and he lived under protection [afforded to North Koreans by the South Korean government]. In 2010 Mr. Chae brought his wife and two children from North Korea to the Seoul area to start living with him. Mr. Chae lived by working as a day laborer on farms, and his children are currently enrolled in university and high school.

Having described the background of Mr. Chae’s involvement in tricking escapees, the story also introduces us to Ms. A.

Type B: Survivor |  During her first attempt to leave Korea in late 2004, Ms. A lost her husband and 7-month-old son due to Mr. Chae’s involvement in their escape. According to a Yonhap report, Ms. A’s husband faced capital punishment in 2006, and the two soldiers who were concurrently captured were executed by firing squad in the camp in 2005. The Chosun story covers the saga of her escape:

Ms. A herself was sentenced to six years of prison labor and went to a reeducation camp. With a shattered family, Ms. A said she would “rather die,” fasted for 20 days, and attempted to commit suicide but ultimately failed.

Having finished her sentence in February last year Ms. A again attempted to escape North Korea, but was captured in Onseong County, North Hamgyeong Province, and put in a detention facility. There, Ms. A paid a bribe of 3,000 won (about 55,000 KRW) and freed herself. In March this year, Ms. A was successful in her third escape from North Korea. As soon as she arrived in South Korea, after passing through Laos and Thailand, her testimony led to Mr. Chae’s arrest, after a corroborative investigation by the authorities.

Observations and Conclusion | Unlike accounts that appeared in other news outlets, the Chosun story made liberal use of emotional quotations from the two North Koreans. “Certainly, when I returned to North Korea with my scattered family, I lived by only thinking about getting revenge on this ‘enemy,’” Ms. A said. As a subheadline, the article also includes her quotation, “Even if he’s killed by being chopped into pieces, it won’t solve the problem.” In the story we also see Mr. Chae as repentant:

As soon as he was caught by authorities, Mr. Chae admitted the crime. “This incident has always weighed on my mind, and I’m very sorry to Ms. A’s family and the soldiers,” Mr. Chae testified. “I will receive my atonement with resignation.”

“Mr. Chae repented too late, and his cooperation led to a result that was too terrible and regrettable,” said a representative from the prosecutor’s office.

While recent “North Korean defector-refugee media”  shows a variety of voices telling the stories of escaped or escaping North Koreans, sensitivity towards intelligence activity is apparent when looking at South Korean media writ large. Just this year at least two blockbuster films have centered on comedic or thrilling takes on North Korean spy tales. “Spy hunting” is not overt or in the least bit pervasive by South Korean citizens currently, but with the threat of NSA agents imminent—whether real, as in the case of Mr. Chae, or perceived but unsubstantiated, as in the case of the men in Ulsan—South Korean citizens and media are understandably alert to finding spies living among them. The issue is complicated with this particular story of a repentant spy. The line between mobilizing a watchful nation and quickly pointing fearful fingers is understandably but perhaps problematically ambiguous.


  1. By “North Korean National Security Agency” do you mean the State Security Department/Ministry of State Security?

  2. Yes, North Korea’s security department (국가안전보위부/북한 보위부).

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