SEOUL — An underground, democratic movement is active inside North Korea, a human rights advocate claimed Monday, surprising many observers skeptical that any organized opposition could exist in one of the world's most secretive, totalitarian states.
Kim Young-hwan said he and three other South Korean activists were arrested in Dandong, China, near the North Korean border, on March 29 after they met with North Korean dissidents who had slipped into China.
The North Koreans were later deported and one was arrested by North Korean security officials, who forced him to confess to anti-regime activities, Mr. Kim said.
Mr. Kim told reporters in Seoul that Chinese authorities held him and his South Korean colleagues for nearly four months, tortured him repeatedly with electric shocks and deprived him of sleep for six days. He accused the Chinese of interrogating him on behalf of the North Koreans to gain information about "individuals or groups supporting democratization in North Korea."
"The reason for our harsh treatment was [that] our activities were highly systematic, as our members had rich experience with underground activities in North Korea," he said, declining to give any further details.
North Korea experts were skeptical of Mr. Kim's claims.
"I am surprised, as it is so difficult for anyone to organize in North Korea," said Chris Green of Daily NK, a Seoul-based nongovernmental organization that gathers information from inside North Korea through cellphone contact with North Koreans.
"There are a lot of people in the international community working for the democratization of North Korea, but I didn't know of anyone inside doing anything."
Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Kookmin University, added, "I am very respectful of Kim, and I don't think he is making things up. But North Korea is more repressive than the Soviet Union under Stalin. So while this might be the beginning of something, I am skeptical."
Mr. Kim has a unique position among advocates for democracy in North Korea. In the 1980s, when he was a student and South Korea was ruled by an authoritarian government, Mr. Kim was a left-wing political activist and traveled secretly to North Korea twice onboard a North Korean submarine.
He met Kim Il-sung, who founded North Korea and whose grandson Kim Jung-un is now the leader of the country. In South Korea, Kim Young-hwan established anti-government groups to oppose the regime in Seoul, but later became a fierce critic of the North and its brutal communist dictatorship.
Mr. Kim's claim that Chinese officials tortured him and his colleagues is causing diplomatic tensions between South Korea and China, which is Seoul's largest export market.
South Korea's ambassador to China, Lee Kyu-hyung, met with Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Zhang Ming last week to protest Mr. Kim's treatment.
China informed South Korea of Mr. Kim's detention two days after his arrest, but refused to allow a South Korean diplomat to visit him for 25 days. The case is so sensitive that it was discussed by China's Communist Party leadership.
Mr. Kim criticized South Korea for its "quiet diplomacy" with China.
"I was not satisfied with measures taken by the South Korean government," he said.