On Tuesday, South Korean President Park Geun-hye endorsed plans to upgrade the country’s infrastructure to ease the settlement process of incoming North Korean defectors.
But while the President might seem determined to make things easier for newly-arriving North Koreans, one investigative journalist isn’t convinced. South Korea’s screening process, Choi Seung-ho, journalist and producer for the Seoul-based Korea Center for Investigative Journalism (NEWSTAPA), argues, has proven itself a perpetrator of the forced interrogation and abuse of North Korean defectors.
Choi tells NK News that his upcoming documentary “Spy Nation” reveals that the National Intelligence Service (NIS) produced forged documents to convict North Korean defector Yu Woo-sung on charges of espionage back in 2014.
He also hopes to raise eyebrows in South Korea, not just through interviews and records of the government agency’s past abuses, but to argue for a transfer of oversight in the screening processes that all North Korean defectors must undergo – currently under the jurisdiction of NIS agents.
“I’m trying to make the Korean people realize how democracy in Korea is in jeopardy,” he says.
HAND OVER THE KEYS
Choi argues that the NIS should no longer be responsible for handling interrogation procedures during screenings at the North Korean Defector Protection Centers, and allow the National Assembly to transfer control over to the Ministry of Unification (MoU).
“The MoU should lead this process, and if there is a person suspected of being a spy, they should let NIS take over criminal procedures,” he says.
Choi argues that the MoU interrogating defectors would mean its secretive counterpart would have to abide by the Korean Criminal Procedure Act.
He also cites Yu Woo-sung’s sister, Yu Garyeo, as a case where government officials should have had to meet stricter protocol on providing defectors with the right to an attorney as well as a fixed schedule on legal proceedings.
“When you regard somebody as a spy and start questioning whether he or she is a criminal or not, you should give them the right to meet with a lawyer and to defend themselves,” he says. “But at the Center, there is nothing.”
“I’m trying to make the Korean people realize how democracy in Korea is in jeopardy”
However, Lee Young-hwan, the chief director of the Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG), is skeptical. He says that Choi’s solution would run the risk of mishandling confidential information.
Lee also says that if the National Assembly had political autonomy in the screening process of defectors, there could be the possibility for politicians to use the information for their own political agendas or that information could be leaked after they leave office.
“Transferring control of one oversight from one political body to another doesn’t guarantee protection of the identity of defectors, which could fall into the wrong hands like the North Korean intelligence,” he says.
CHANGE FROM WITHIN?
While Lee adds that the MoU’s handling of interrogations may likely result in another political body monitoring their operations, several lawmakers disagree.
Shin Kyung-min, a member of the National Assembly Intelligence Committee, has called on the NIS to relax restrictions in the screening process of defectors – as well as granting them access to an attorney or visitation from family members in South Korea.
“The NIS insists that they are an expert body when it comes to detecting which defector is a spy and which one isn’t”
Park Jae-hyun, the acting secretarial official to Shin, says that they have appealed – through a draft proposal – for the NIS to reduce the maximum duration time for interrogating defectors suspected of being North Korean agents from 180 days to 90.
In individual cases like Yu Woo-sung, his sister, Hong Kang-chul, and now the 12 North Korean waitresses who defected with their manager to South Korea back in early April, Park tells NK News that the NIS made guarantees to allow visitation and communication beyond the confines of the North Korean Defector Protection Center.
“But there’s still no transparency or clear understanding about what that guarantee of visitation means,” he says.
NK News, making contact with the NIS’s press office, asked an official to clarify if communication between the defectors and either family members or lawyers was allowed, but the agency declined to comment.
For the sake of ensuring adequate safety and protection of North Korean defectors, Park adds that NIS control over the screening process required checks and balances from other state institutions – namely the MoU.
“The NIS insists that they are an expert body when it comes to detecting which defector is a spy and which one isn’t,” he says. “But we would first prefer some joint action to assure them of their human rights.”
“Changing the facility’s name from Joint Interrogation Center to what it is called now, I believe, was clearly a public relations move.”
Choi agrees that name changes have made little or no dent in the screening process.
Park says that the Intelligence Committee, under Shin’s directions, plans to propose transferring control of interrogations over to the MoU on Thursday – the same day that “Spy Nation” is set for release.
“It’s a dangerous notion to think that if this were to happen in a Western country, it would turn into a big scandal…”
When asked about the potential for a shift in political responsibilities, a government official at the MoU told NK News that since the name change of the Joint Interrogation Center, “defectors’ rights were being upheld.”
WHAT TO EXPECT
When asked about what South Korean audiences should expect after watching his documentary, Choi says that viewers – experiencing what Yu and his sister had to endure – should look into how the NIS could also use its powers to spy on its own citizens.
“If this were to happen in a Western country, it would turn into a big scandal,” he says.
Choi, after compiling Yu Woo-sung’s account of the story, says that he thinks a solution for subpar settlement conditions and suspicions of North Korean defectors acting as spies will not, unfortunately, come anytime soon.
Edited by: Oliver Hotham
Featured image: “Spy Nation” teaser trailer