“I’m sorry, but you said North Korea is a paradise on earth, right?”
A young man, surnamed Oh, stood up and cut in as Shin Eun-mi spoke to an audience that had gathered to listen to her experiences while traveling North Korea.
“No, I have never said that it is a paradise on earth,” she replied. “Read my book at least once, please.”
The man tried to offer a rejoinder but was held back by the audience and event staff. Shin continued to discuss her dream of helping North Korean youths after her husband retires.
Shin, a U.S. citizen born in South Korea, first gained fame after she wrote a series of travelogues on North Korea for the South Korean news site OhmyNews. Later she published a book based on her travelogue, which was designated a “recommended book” by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in 2013.
Shin was on tour for a series of talks around the country, sharing her experiences in traveling North Korea with her audience.
On this particular day Oh, the man who asked the “paradise” question, was finally given a chance to stand up a second time and ask a question. Instead he lit a fire in a small pot, which contained an explosive, and tried to throw it at Shin. One event staff member blocked it, though, and the pot exploded far from its target.
Panic followed. The staff member who blocked it suffered burns on his face and body. Thanks to him, though, Shin was able to evacuate swiftly without any harm.
The would-be bomber was apprehended right after the incident. However, his target would soon be evicted from the country and Oh was soon to emerge as something of a folk hero on the anti-North right; developments with disturbing implications for political discourse in South Korea.
“I have no goals in my life. Someone please give me one,” Oh, who is in his late teens, wrote in October, about two months before the incident.
Oh was working as a trainee for a waste oil disposal facility. Since he had studied chemicals at a technical high school, he knew how to deal with them and had a hazardous material license.
What he didn’t seem to know was how to cure his loneliness; in one web forum, he even offered to hire someone “to talk to me.” By December, Oh would be posting in web forums again, proudly displaying his handcuffs.
‘Know that it was me when you hear that Shin’s been bombed to death’
A friend, surnamed Lee, told the South Korean weekly SisaIN that Oh decided on his course of action while in his company’s staff lounge in his hometown of Iksan upon hearing the news that Shin would take her show there.
“Senior workers in the company were ribbing him, asking ‘Are you really gonna do it?'” Lee said.
The answer was yes: “At last I have found my goal in life,” he wrote soon after, with a picture of his own chemical stockpile.
“Ms. Shin’s jongpuk show will be held around my house tomorrow,” he wrote. Jongpuk refers to “those who follow and uncritically accept both the North’s ruling political power and its leaders” and is a term of derision among South Korean conservatives.
“Know that it was me when you hear that Shin’s been bombed to death,” he wrote on December 9, a day before the attack.
WHIPPING UP A STORM
Shin Eun-mi has since garnered attention thanks to her deportation from South Korea because she spoke positively of the North.
A day after Oh attempted to assassinate her, the police were already investigating Shin over accusations from conservative groups that she had “praised” North Korea. The National Security Law provides that praising “the enemy” – the North in this case – can be punished by up to seven years in prison.
“The police reviewed whether Ms. Shin intended to praise North Korean regime by using terms like ‘happiness’ and ‘peace’ when depicting the lives of North Koreans,” according to a South Korean newspaper’s report on the police investigation on December 14.
After perusing her words spoken while on tour, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency concluded on December 29 that she had used no expressions like “paradise on earth.”
So, where did the idea that she called the North a “paradise” – the term so rankled Oh – come from?
Its origins can be traced to a report by a TV Chosun reporter in its November 21 news show: “(They) kept on praising North Korea as a paradise on earth indeed and poured disparagement and ridicule on South Korea and capitalism,” the reporter says at one point.
Following the report by TV Chosun, an offshoot of the conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper, other outlets began to mention “paradise” in their reports – not to mention jongpuk.
Even President Park Geun-hye referred to it publicly.
“It’s concerning that the so-called ‘jongpuk concert’ is aggravating social discord. … Some are exaggerating their slanted experience as reality, turning a blind eye to North Koreans’ appalling living condition and human rights violations,” Park said at a chief secretary meeting on December 15th.
Media experts have since been very critical of TV Chosun’s journalistic ethics.
“(Its report) violated the basics of journalism, which must be devoted to facts,” Korea National University of Arts professor Chun Kyu-chan was quoted as saying by the Hankyoreh.
“It can review and criticize if (Shin’s) thoughts on unification are appropriate or false. However, for the sake of criticism, it’s the press’ duty to deliver the utterance in question in a just manner,” media critic Wi Keun-woo wrote.
TV Chosun local desk head Lee Jin-dong explained that it was “speaking figuratively” when it used the term “paradise,” according to SisaIN.
One media expert points out that behind its sensational reporting lies ratings competition.
“Among the comprehensive programming channels, TV Chosun and Channel A (an offshoot of the Dong-A Ilbo) in particular tend to report in a sensational manner since their ratings are based on older conservatives,” People’s Coalition for Media Reform secretary Choo Hye-sun told NK News.
“They feed on issues from today’s social conflict structure which would be well-received by their major audience—far-right conservatives in their 60s. There are some keywords including jongpuk and sex-related things with which they try very hard to increase ratings,” she said.
SYMPATHY FOR AN ASSASSIN
‘A state of war consists not only of conflict between the two sides but also of internal conflict within each of them’
This network was active starting the day after the attempted bombing: After the incident, a fund-raising campaign began and the donations exceeded 13 million won (about $12,000) in a day.
The recipient? Shin’s would-be assassin.
“We should provide legal support to Champion Oh,” right-wing media personality Shin Hye-sik, who began the campaign, tweeted right after the incident.
One expert explains the sudden rise of extremists in South Korea who even openly speak in favor of violence.
“A state of war consists not only of conflict between the two sides but also of internal conflict within each of them. Throughout the Korean War, state violence killed many people, including civilians, carelessly,” historian Fujii Takeshi, research director of the Institute for Korean Historical Studies told NK News.
Takeshi said the experience of state violence still lies deep within South Korean society and in people’s minds. This history, with its strict dichotomization, has made discussion of inter-Korean issues almost impossible.
“It always led to a question of taking sides between the two. This hostility has to be resolved step by step. Progressives tried to do so during the former governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun but they couldn’t make any progress further than pointing a finger and exclude the (violent) conservatives. Now they are coming back as the progressives wane,” he said.
In Shin’s case, the prosecution decided on January 8 to suspend her indictment on the grounds that she didn’t agree with the North’s hereditary succession of power and that she was “exploited” by Hwang Sun, who hosted her series of talks and had previously been arrested twice under the National Security Law.
Instead, the prosecution demanded to the Ministry of Justice that Shin be deported, and she had to leave South Korea on January 10. She won’t be able to visit South Korea for five years.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has since decided to revoke its recommendation of Shin’s book, even though this was not legally required, as the Kyunghyang Shinmun has reported.
“The pain of division was graver than I had thought. On the other hand, I think I’ve been living too loosely abroad. … I believe (my motherland) will know my sincerity some day, after all,” Shin said in an interview after deportation.
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