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Spy stories

By Bradley Martin, Asia Times, 18 September 1999

Juche loses some of its shine in the South

The wreckage of the economy and the starvation of a substantial portion of the population top a list of reasons why the outside world might expect North Korea's leaders to look for a new set of policies - maybe even all or parts of the comprehensive package deal outlined in Washington by former Defense Secretary William Perry this week - to replace the policies that Kim Jong-il inherited from his father, Kim Il-sung.

Another reason, less remarked upon, is that the North seems to have begun to falter in the battle for the hearts and minds of South Koreans. Kim Il-sung never gave up the idea of taking over the South by force. But he imagined that there would be plenty of help from idealistic young South Koreans - intellectuals and workers - who were impressed with his record of patriotic struggle against the Japanese colonialists and influenced by his ideology of juche (often translated as national self-reliance).

There were indeed a great many such youngsters in the 1980s, during South Koreans' struggle against military-backed dictatorships at home. And the numbers stayed high even on into the '90s, when South Koreans long since had won the right to vote freely to elect such civilian democrats as Kim Young-sam (president from 1992 to 1997) and current President Kim Dae-jung.

But in 1994 Kim Il-sung died - to be replaced by a son who lacked the father's stature and charisma. Around the same time the economic failure of the North Korean system became too obvious for any but the most hidebound ideologue to ignore. And in 1997, no less a figure than Hwang Jang-yop, the North Korean senior official widely credited with having developed the juche ideology, defected to the South.

The sort of disillusionment that has resulted among some South Koreans who had been beating the drums for Pyongyang is illustrated by a current scandal in Seoul. Kim Young-hwan, one of the most prominent leaders of pro-Pyongyang 1980s student radicals who called themselves jusapa (juche ideology faction), is reported to have confessed that he was a spy for Pyongyang.

According to South Korean media reports, which quote the National Intelligence Service, Kim - now a practically middle-aged 36 - confessed that he had joined Pyongyang's spy service in 1989 at the behest of a North Korean agent. Kim said he was then taken to the North on a semi-submersible spy vessel and there joined the ruling Workers' (Communist) Party, received a medal and met Kim Il-sung - who directed him to undertake development of a pro-Pyongyang underground and start a legal political party in the South. That he did, bringing in other veterans of the student anti-government movement.

Kim grew disillusioned with the North Korean system he was promoting and in a 1995 magazine interview denounced the juche ideology. He asserts that Pyongyang was on his case after that, scheming to have an agent assassinate him for his betrayal. He didn't go to the South Korean authorities right away but, in fear for his life, fled to China. Only recently did he return home and spill the beans. The prosecution has recommended leniency for him and a colleague, who also ranked high in the spy organization, because they have turned on their spymasters.

If this sort of reversal is not yet a trend, it probably soon will be. But don't hold your breath waiting for Pyongyang to stop sending its agents south to try to recruit more Kim Young-hwans. After all, that modus operandi was good enough for Kim Il-sung.