7 astonishing stories the double agent who met Kim Jong Il in person tells us


Released in Korean cinemas last week, The Spy Gone North shows something quite different from any previous Korean films which star intelligence operatives as protagonists.

There is no Jason Borne style action at all and while critics like to call it le Carré, the characters are full of fervor. I didn’t like the way the director tweaks the true story to fit in the film, especially how the protagonist turns the tide in the climax.

By the way, the real star of the film is Lee Sung-min who plays the North Korean trade official.

As you may be aware, this is based on the true story of Park Chae-seo, former intelligence operative of the Agency for National Security Planning, or ankibu. Like some North Korea watchers prefer bowibu to State Security Department.1Another common feature of the two authoritarian security apparatuses was their ruthlessness at the point of fabricating allegations for the sake of it.

Park is probably one of the most successful spy in the history of South Korean intelligence—he even managed to have met Kim Jong Il in person.

His operational aim was to infiltrate into North Korean leadership under the disguise of businessman who’s interested in making money between the two Koreas.

And his business was good.

Until he got in the way of his bosses mission to prevent Kim Dae-jung from becoming the next President of the ROK.

When Park walked out of jail after serving six years for violating the notorious national security law, he had four notebooks in his hand. It was his kind of memoir.

Veteran journalist Kim Dang, who’s broken numerous news stories with Park’s help during the 1997 Presidential campaign, wrote a two-book non-fiction entitled Stratagem, same as The Spy Gone North’s original Korean title.

So this is Kim writing on various events part based on Park’s memoir and part based on his own experience. Kim lightly boasts about this as being able to cross check Park’s witness which is, due to its own nature, very hard to verify.

We can be quite sure about Park’s unintended entanglement with the 1997 Presidential election. Kim alone was a very capable journalist and had the guts to defy ankibu and kimusa(ROK Defense Security Command).

When it comes what Park experienced and heard from North Korean officials, however, there are little ways to verify what he claims to have heard. I can only say that it pretty much makes sense though.

While the CIA office in the US embassy in Seoul would be busy translating (or maybe they’ve done it all already ?) the meat of the book, I’m just going to tell you some of the most intriguing stories Park tells us.

1. US Intelligence determined NK nuclear program as early as 1992

Before he joined the ANSP, Park was a military intelligence officer working in cooperation with the US military intelligence. One of the missions he worked on with his US counterpart was to gauge the progress of North Korea’s nuclear program.

Park says Pyongyang at first received tech assistance from Soviet Union and then from China after the Union collapsed. Chinese military was willing to help Pyongyang to conduct a nuclear test in the Gobi Desert but its political leadership opposed to the idea.

As of 1991, Pyongyang managed to develop two low quality warheads, he says.

To find out how much technologies Beijing gave Pyongyang, Park managed to reach out to one Chinese Korean scientist who had a role in Sino-NK nuclear cooperation.

With the scientist’s cooperation the US determined that Pyongyang has been developing nuclear weapons. But to Park’s surprise, the US had never shared the intelligence with Seoul.

2. Even Pyongyang didn’t want Kim Dae-jung to be next ROK President

Park didn’t have much interest in domestic politics but knew very well that Kim Dae-jung had always a tag of pro-North communist.

So he was dumbfounded when he found out that Pyongyang not only supported Seoul and ANSP slandering Kim but also actively set up against Kim by alluring Cheondoism leader Oh Ik-je, who had been also a long-time supporter of Kim, to defect to the North.

A North Korean official told Park why Pyongyang doesn’t want Kim to be the next President of South Korea:

  • He’s a world-famous political leader so Pyongyang would find it hard to deal with him
  • As Park Chung-hee the former communist did, Kim may try to cleanse himself of the communist image by implementing a harsher anti-communist policy

3. ROK spies love Japanese far-right media

When Oh Ik-je defected to the North, one senior ANSP official gave out a press release guidance to its overseas outpost managers to make foreign press to write stories which depicts as if Oh’s defection has something to do with Kim Dae-jung.

So called reimportation maneuvering which ANSP loves so much. Park notes that ANSP favored to engineer domestic media by sending out false information to Japanese far-right media which have huge interest in North Korea and letting domestic media quote them.

Well, it still happens these days…

4. Hwang Jang Yop’s defection was a failed job

Hwang Jang Yop had been signaling his willingness to defect to the South but ANSP didn’t want him, Park says. He wasn’t worth the fuss in inter-Korean relations, it thought.

But Kim Hyun-cheol, son of then incumbent President Kim Young-sam who used to be called ‘little President’ chipped in. Kim had senior ANSP officials in his inner circle and set out to intercept Hwang to blow another wind from the North.

5. Hyundai was behind the spy operation leak?

At last, Kim Dae-jung was elected to the next President against all odds, including ANSP director’s own poor public manipulation operation.

Fearing consequences, Kwon the director orders the head of North Korea operations compile a thick file of ANSP documents, some of it genuine and others fake.

Kwon wanted to show the new administration that he can still damage its integrity with the forged documents. It didn’t work however.

One out of five copies of the file leaked to the Hankyoreh newspaper and it published a story based on it without doing little fact-checking.

This is how Park’s secret operation which had been very successful was exposed in broad daylight. The Hankyoreh story mentions his operation “under the guise of advert business.”

Later Park’s ANSP colleague who’s now working for Samsung tells him a very interesting story.

Samsung had a major portion in the inter-Korean business projects. Hyundai was concerned so much that it leaked the documents to Hankyoreh to sabotage Samsung’s share in the projects.

Whether this is true or not, after Kim Dae-jung came in power Hyundai managed to have a lion’s share in the inter-Korean business projects. But as we have seen from the Mt Keumkang tourism it marked the beginning of Hyundai’s decline.

6. Jang Song Thaek was concerned that NIS tries to set him up

Park says he met Jang Song Thaek several times even after he was exposed. While he no longer works for the ANSP which was reorganized into the National Intelligence Service, Park still had lots of connections in China, North and South Korea.

When the two met in 2009, Jang tells him that the currency reform was another kind of power struggle and even he had no knowledge of it happening in advance. There was practically no control over the military hard-liners, Jang says.

Jang thought the NIS has been intentionally leaking information on corruption of his staffs to the hard-liners. Several South Korean reports after Jang’s execution suggest that the NIS even succeeded to set Jang up.

7. Pyongyang sank ROKS Cheonan with the help of Chinese navy

Chinese leadership fumed over the ROKS Cheonan sinking. Beijing then had the initiative to talk Pyongyang and the US into getting back to the six party talks.

Far from being what state media of the two countries said, the Sino-NK summit came after the incident was about Beijing scolding Pyongyang on the ROKS Cheonan sinking.

Kim Jong Il allegedly said he didn’t know about the Cheonan sinking. Park and Kim Dang suggest even KJI had no absolute control over the military.

Later Jang Song Thaek tells Park there was Chinese military’s support behind the Cheonan sinking.

“How could our submarine know where the Cheonan is in the darkest night and sink her with one torpedo shot? Our navy has no capability to do that without intelligence support from Shenyang Military Region,” Jang told Park.

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    Another common feature of the two authoritarian security apparatuses was their ruthlessness at the point of fabricating allegations for the sake of it.

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