- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 12, 2017

SEOUL | One of the highest-profile North Korean defectors living in South Korea said Pyongyang continues to operate a wide-reaching spy network inside the South despite soaring tensions on the peninsula.

The persistence of the North’s intelligence network adds yet another layer of complication to efforts to resolve the Korean crisis short of war, and raises fresh questions of whether Seoul can be a full partner in the increasingly hard line being taken by the Trump administration against the regime of Kim Jong-un.

“There are a lot of North Korean spies here, and it is easy for them to move in and out of the country,” says Cho Myung-chul, who fled from the North in 1994 and later rose to prominence as the first defector ever to serve in the South Korean parliament.

In a wide-ranging discussion with The Washington Times over the weekend, Mr. Cho also expressed skepticism over whether U.S. policymakers grasp the long-term strategic thinking behind the moves of the regime in Pyongyang.

“The North Koreans are very smart and very strategic,” he said, adding that Washington should be wary that Mr. Kim’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is driven as much by a desire for international respect as by a goal of trying to dominate the South into “reunifying” with the North on terms set and controlled by Pyongyang.

Mr. Cho, who once taught at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang and now chairs a South Korean organization called the “Committee for North Korean Human Rights,” said the North Korean regime dreams of one day bringing about a “reunification” on the Korean Peninsula that follows the “Vietnam model.” The North’s drive for nuclear weapons, by this theory, would set in motion something akin to what occurred following the 1973 American pullout from South Vietnam, where the communist North absorbed South Vietnam within just a few years.

“If they have nuclear bombs, it will mean that Kim Jong-un can protect himself and protect his regime, and then, eventually, the long-term goal will be to take over South Korea,” Mr. Cho said. “That’s their dream, and it’s a mistaken idea.”

Mr. Cho, who served in the South Korean parliament as a member of the conservative Saenuri Party from 2012 to 2016, voiced concern over a lack of resolve and clarity in U.S. policy toward the North’s aggressions.

“America has been dealing with this North Korea problem for a long time, and America should have learned from this experience by now,” he said. “America is not able to make a policy because it is struggling to debate what to do and is then losing time. We need something quickly to set the policy and send a signal to North Korea.”

The spy factor

South Korean counterintelligence operations in recent years have tried to track and prevent North Korean spies from infiltrating the South’s military.

A wave of arrests over the past three years swept up at least eight “civilians” accused of trying to cozy up to South Korean military officers with the goal of extracting Army intelligence to be shared with the North. Four of the individuals were found guilty last year on spying charges.

A more spectacular case unfolded in 2008 with the arrest of Won Jeong-hwa, a North Korean woman whom authorities said was trying to seduce a young army captain to obtain military secrets. Authorities in Seoul circulated a memo warning businessmen and military officials to watch out for North Korean “honey trap” intelligence operations.

Mr. Cho said the North’s operatives can easily move in and out of the country. He noted that as many as 100,000 people — including tourists and business visitors — come in and out of South Korea on a given day, with the majority coming from around the region and passing through Seoul’s international airport.

Many hold dual citizenships, presenting a major screening problem. “Many business visitors are coming in from Thailand — maybe they live in China — and some are actually of North Korean nationality,” said Mr. Cho. “How can you expect to catch them?”

‘If they get caught’

Despite the hostility between the two Koreas, North Korean spies still have a number of promising targets. One former official with past experience debriefing and working with North Korean defectors told The Times that a major part of the North’s operation actually involves “infiltrating” defector communities.

There are believed to be as many as 30,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea. A handful work as journalists at Free North Korea Radio, a Seoul-based nonprofit that pipes a daily news broadcast into the North over short-wave radio.

“We’re not worried that North Korean spies will directly infiltrate our office or interrupt our operation,” said Kang Seo, who works on the staff of the organization. “But we do get threats in the mail or by fax saying, ‘We’re going to kill you all and chase you down because you are betrayers of the regime.’”

Pyongyang’s state-controlled newspapers have published the names of defectors working at the radio station.

“It’s like an intimidation campaign,” she said. “Their names are in the North Korean papers saying they’re going to hunt them down and kill their whole family, whether it’s in South Korea or North Korea.”

Ms. Seo, who is not a defector herself, also expressed concern about the safety of individuals helping the radio station from inside the North.

Free North Korea Radio broadcasts for an hour a day, and features North Korean defectors talking about what the life of freedom is like for young people in the South compared to the North’s authoritarian rule.

The organization, funded in part by donations from Christian churches in South Korea and the U.S., also features Bible readings and a radio drama about the life of Jesus Christ.

But a key portion centers on news about what’s going on inside North Korea that Pyongyang’s state media would never allow. “We have people inside different parts of North Korea who we talk to every day through Chinese cellphones smuggled into the North,” said Ms. Seo. “If they’re near the border with China, they can pick up a cell signal from the Chinese side of the border.”

Carlo Munoz contributed to this report from Washington.

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