20.11.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Are they martyrs or spies?

The Ministry of Reunification declared on November 2, 2023 that it chose to identify family members of South Korean nationals who had been detained in North Korea for a prolonged amount of time as Pyongyang abduction victims. Four family members living in the ROK will receive benefits ranging from 15 million to 20 million won ($11,000 to $15,000) per family. “For a substantial solution to the issue of detainees, abductees and prisoners of war (in North Korea), the government will cooperate with civic groups to continue to draw attention at home and abroad, and closely coordinate with the international community,” the ministry said.

The decision was made three months after problem-solving civil groups petitioned Minister Kim Yung-ho in August to provide such family members the status that DPRK abduction victims are entitled to under South Korean law.

Let us remind our readers that a total of six South Koreans are currently being held in the North, including missionaries Kim Jung-wook, Kim Kuk-gi and Choe Chun-gil. After being detained in Pyongyang in 2013, Kim Jung-wook was found guilty of spying for the intelligence service of South Korea and given a life sentence. Kim Kuk-ki and Choe Chun-gil were detained in 2014, while three former refugees who obtained South Korean citizenship were detained in 2016.

ROK media reported that the fate of the detainees remains unknown as North Korea has not provided any information about their well-being, yet calls for their release have been repeated. On October 8, 2023, Seoul demanded that Pyongyang release Kim Jung-wook and five other citizens, calling their years in detention unconstitutional and inhumane. According to Koo Byoung-sam, a spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry, the government would collaborate with the religious community and civic groups to identify the detainees’ whereabouts and seek their return, as well as with the international community to help settle the situation. To oversee South Korean detainees, abductees, and prisoners of war held in North Korea, a task force was formed by the same ministry.

A number of stories in conservative media including quotes like “North Korea has been a merciless land for Christian missionaries over the decades. But for South Korean believers, it has been even more so have appeared in the ten years following Kim Jung Wook’s arrest. Unlike ROK residents, a number of pastors from the United States, Canada, and Australia were ultimately freed through diplomatic discussions after being found guilty of spying and other anti-state offenses in North Korea since the early 2010s. Additionally, Lee Kyu-chang, a senior analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification, claims that South Koreans are likely also being tortured and that not enough is being done to liberate them by the authorities (particularly Moon, though Yoon is also receiving negative press). Shin Hee-seok, a legal analyst at Transitional Justice Working Group, a Seoul-based NGO notes that “over the past two decades, the Japanese government has consistently raised the issue of North Korean abductions of its citizens at the U.N. General Assembly, while the government here has not … What message would its inaction and silence send to North Korea in regard to the detainees?”

And what’s really going on?

Let’s start with Kim Jung-wook. According to the Korea Times, “For more than five years before the arrest, he was on a humanitarian mission in Dandong, a Chinese border city, where he provided food and other necessities for North Korean visitors and escapees. Christian missionaries and activists offer food and other types of support for North Koreans near its border, putting their own lives at risk. The North Korean constitution protects conditional religious freedom.  But in reality, it is non-existent as the regime considers religious activities as an attempt to sabotage its rule.”

On November 7, 2013, the DPRK authority announced the arrest of a South Korean spy who entered North Korea with the aim of destabilizing the situation in society. Under the pretense of being a Christian preacher, the detained individual was a member of the ROK National Intelligence Service and had been engaged in espionage operations in neighboring nations for six years, according to the KCNA news agency. The churchmen themselves verified the arrest, merely clarifying that Kim Jong-wook, 50, is “a missionary of the Presbyterian Church, engaged in providing assistance to the residents of the DPRK, who are under arrest and experiencing difficulties,” rather than a spy.

February 27, 2014. Kim Jung Wook talked with the press, including those from outside, and requested a pardon from the DPRK government. Kim presented numerous stories, the most important of which was that he was, in fact, an operative of the ROK intelligence services who, on October 7, 2013, crossed the PRC-DPRK border illegally on a smuggling boat and was apprehended upon arrival in Pyongyang for a document check. According to the missionary, he was following instructions from the South Korean intelligence agency. He added that he advocated for the construction of Christian churches in place of Kim dynasty monuments. His efforts were indeed part of the intelligence services’ strategy, and there are more missionaries of similar type working along China’s border with the DPRK. Kim believed that religious propaganda might bring the North Korean state system down, and his goal was to topple the existing government and political system and establish a “Christian country” in the North. He told his followers that the regime would collapse and be replaced by a nation blessed by God if 500 covert congregations appeared around the nation.

In Dandong, he founded an underground church with the purpose of recruiting sympathizers with the money the intelligence service supplied. He not only worked with DPRK citizens there, but he also got crucial information from them, which he then sent to the intelligence service. In addition, he requested that they record their tales in writing, which served as witness statements. He discredited the DPRK’s political structure during the service by having the attendees pray against North Korea or compose narratives that were critical of it.

When South Korean or American visitors arrived in town, he also mandated that the congregation take part in “dissident masses”. This is a critical topic about how information about the DPRK is collected. In this case, a number of people under the priest’s influence, psychological pressure, or financial inducement were carrying out his orders to speak on behalf of North Korean dissidents and provide slanted news of that nature to the media in South Korea and the West.

According to Kim, he rented a building that not only served as an underground church but also as a location for DPRK citizens to watch more than 100 South Korean cable TV channels, including pornographic ones. There was also a library of works written by defectors detailing the atrocities they had witnessed in the North, particularly in religious magazines critical of North Korea. It was mandated that the congregation read it and hold a public discussion of what they had read. Kim explained how his trainees were brainwashed and subjected to mutual control tactics, which are similar to those used in harmful sects.

Kim described in great detail how he crossed the border and how he intended to use his luggage, which included CDs of pornography, memory cards, bibles, and hundreds of MP3 players in addition to medical equipment and supplies for first aid. The memory cards featured literary works of religious faith, motion pictures portraying the Christian church’s contribution to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, and South Korean television shows following the tradition of “anti-communist drama.” Pornography was used to reward particularly active members, sell the disks on the black market to make money, or copy them for free in order to draw in new members. Cameras were also used to take pictures of closed areas in Pyongyang and document “Christian resistance actions” on film. Apparently, the situation where people were invited to watch porn, and then they found themselves on an anti-North Korean activity, had been so successful in China that they decided to use the same scheme in the DPRK.

Kim has also become entangled in human trafficking, which involves moving refugees via third nations like Laos from the north to the south. Thus, in October 2008, for a fee, he helped four defectors from the North to escape to a third country. Unfortunately, the fate of these people is unknown, though if they were real refugees, he could honestly tell people about their fate, even without revealing their names. He also took out Chinese citizens through third countries to South Korea, presenting them as North Korean refugees, and he did this for a fee.

Naturally, this public apology-style statement cannot be entirely trusted, but the amount of tangible evidence offered was too great, and it is no accident that Kim Jong Wook’s name does not appear on Western lists of prisoners of conscience.

The other two pastors are also good. On March 26, 2015, a press conference featuring members of the diplomatic corps and local and international media took place at Pyongyang’s People’s Palace of Culture. There, officials from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s Ministry of State Security announced the arrest of two South Korean intelligence agents, Kim Guk-gi, 61, and Choi Chung-gil, 56, who were gathering intelligence through Koreans residing in China, business travelers to the North, and Chinese living abroad. The detainees themselves claim that South Korean intelligence agents operating in China recruited them to aid in the DPRK’s isolation from the outside world. Leading the disinformation campaign were American imperialists and their allies, who also collected intelligence.

On December 30, 2014, Choi Chung-gil illegally entered the North’s territory but was captured by border guards. In one account, Kim Guk-gi was arrested during activities on DPRK territory; in another, the PRC’s authorized authorities carried out the detention in Dandong, and the alleged spy was subsequently turned over to North Korea.

Either way, Kim Guk-gi preached to PRC nationals of Korean heritage at an underground church he established in Dandong in 2003. He was recruited by the ROK intelligence services in 2005 and from the following year became a professional spy working for a fee.

He was effective in establishing a network of espionage among PRC and DPRK nationals, particularly Chinese residing in the North, who provided him with intelligence in exchange for money. Based on the available information, he was able to learn a great deal about the advancement of the DPRK’s military infrastructure as well as the military and economic ties between Korea and China. Kim gathered classified data by taking pictures of railroad infrastructure and monitoring the amount and kind of railroad traffic between North Korea and China. Kim was gathering details regarding the 2010 schedule and visit of DPRK leader Kim Jong Il to China, which included a stopover in Dandong.

He also participated in the dissemination of secular and religious works critical of North Korea. It’s interesting to point out that a large portion of the material was comic strips mocking the DPRK’s senior leaders, either created by him on a computer or printed by the South Korean intelligence agency.

It’s curious about other things as well. In the hopes that a “Christian resistance” would really arise, the propaganda materials included both “defector confessions” and motivational stories of how a “Christian resistance” was functioning within North Korea. For example, leaflets circulated by Kim’s operatives in the ROK seemed to have been printed by the local opposition.

For journalists or foreign groups covering human rights concerns in the DPRK, Kim frequently served as a mentor. After all, a lot of these supporters or academics attempt to collect data wherever they can, including in China’s border regions. But by setting up a meeting with his agents, Kim provided them with deception rather than factual information.

While accusing North Korea of manufacturing counterfeit dollars, Kim Guk-gi was smuggling foreign currency into the DPRK, as well as high-quality North Korean bills of unknown origin (most certainly counterfeit). He was also involved in the production of fake North Korean currency in small denominations, which he transferred to the DPRK in batches of 100-1,000 notes hidden in the personal items of Chinese citizens. This was done to compensate informants while also destabilizing the economy. In this regard, we would like to mention that, according to certain accounts, the DPRK authorities were forced to change the design of high value banknotes in order to combat counterfeits manufactured overseas.

Choi Chun-gi has been in China since 2003, was recruited in 2011, and has been doing a lot more intriguing things. For example, with the assistance of his operatives, he was able to get images of the surrounds of the Yongbyon test site, as well as samples of radioactive soil. In addition, his men took pictures of military facilities and stole the military ID cards and uniforms of North Korean officials to be used as sabotage tools in the case of an invasion.

In addition, he recruited DPRK nationals and Chinese Koreans to train them in underground missionary courses so they could work in the DPRK. He also distributed pornography and South Korean films through Chinese nationals who frequently visited the DPRK as “ideological subversion.”

The author learned about all of this via speaking with eyewitnesses and from Chinese sources, therefore the question “martyrs or spies” in the text’s title is totally rhetorical.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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