Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mixed Fortunes for Former Friends

Last Friday, South Korean lawmaker-elect Lee Seok Gi was reminded again that the party in whose name he was elected to the National Assembly on April 11th, has not really got the guts to expel him in order to reform itself.

If it had unexpectedly shown the degree of backbone needed to kick him out then it would not have been undeserved, however. Having emerged onto the political landscape at the beginning of the year as a proportional representation candidate for the hard left-leaning United Progressive Party (UPP), Lee has come under near constant pressure to jump ship since compelling evidence linking him to electoral fraud in a January primary election was uncovered. Voices of condemnation then rose to a crescendo when a section of the party which supports Lee spent seven hours systematically disrupting a televised central committee meeting on May 12th; crashing the stage, pushing and shoving party leaders, tearing clothing and finally bringing about the adjournment of the entire event.

It is said that the purpose of the violence was to protect the right of both Lee and fellow proportional representative Kim Jae Yeon to enter the National Assembly. The event had been set up to facilitate a vote on the establishment of an emergency leadership entity whose actions, Lee’s supporters rightly feared, would result in the two being compelled to give up their seats.

Both this and other attempts by the two to avoid resignation have been astonishing in their shamelessness, even by the murky standards of South Korean politics. Promoting the heavily disputed claim that he bears no responsibility for the election fraud itself, Lee has repeatedly declared that he will only resign pursuant to a poll of the party membership, which is not part of the party’s rules, while the violence of his supporters, though not directly attributable to Lee himself, was certainly the doing of the progressive movement he leads, the East Gyeonggi Coalition. The two have even used the breathing space afforded them by the party’s machinations to quietly transfer their party membership from the Seoul City branch to that in Gyeonggi Province, which is where much of their support base is registered and where the East Gyeonggi Coalition is at its most powerful.

Yet ironically, Lee’s apparent determination to participate in the National Assembly at all costs stands in exceedingly stark contrast to his formative years spent working toward the overthrow of the democratically elected government of South Korea as a member of the People’s Democratic Revolutionary Party (or ‘Minhyukdang’), a bygone sample of classic Cold War intrigue, mercifully rare in the modern world, established in 1992 by a group of radical leftists led by Seoul National University graduates Kim Young Hwan and Ha Young Ok.

In probably the most infamous episode of Kim Young Hwan's career as a pro-North Korea revolutionary, on May 16th, 1991, he and another man were transported in the dead of night from an island off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula in a North Korean semi-submersible speed boat to Haeju in South Hwanghae Province and onward to Pyongyang. They stayed in the North Korean capital for seventeen days, during which time they met the North Korean founding leader twice and spent fifteen days receiving intense education, before being dropped in the dead of night off the south coast of Jeju Island, South Korea’s most southerly point. Months later, Kim received orders to form Minhyukdang.

Interestingly, it was then the very same Lee Seok Gi who acted as Minhyukdang’s representative in South Gyeonggi Province. Nobody knows, or is saying, whether he ever joined the Chosun Workers’ Party as Kim and Ha had done, but Gyeonggi Province Governor Kim Moon Soo is one of a number of people who allege that he did, and the way he went into hiding for three years after Kim Young Hwan publicly revealed the party in 1999 has done nothing to inspire public confidence since. Not only that, it is said that in his years spent in hiding, then in prison, and then as a free man, Lee continued working with Ha to rebuild the Minhyukdang infrastructure. It was this process, it is believed, which resulted in the creation of the East Gyeonggi Coalition.

All of which would, it seems fair to say, ordinarily be intrigue enough for one election cycle. However, while the domestic political scene has been gripped by the Lee scandal, something potentially far more serious is also happening in China, where Kim Young Hwan has himself now been at the mercy of the Chinese Ministry of State Security for almost 60 days.

Kim, who has been working for North Korean human rights for the ten+ years since he rejected his pro-North Korea views, was arrested by Chinese intelligence on March 29th, six days after his arrival in the thriving port city of Dalian. He had travelled to the area many times before without incident, having based his actions on the sensible premise that North Korean human rights activists are never welcomed in China, only tolerated. Yet unlike Lee, who is and seems sure to remain a free man despite evidence of wrongdoing, especially once he takes up immunity from prosecution as a National Assembly lawmaker tomorrow, Kim, despite the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing, much less of the national security violations he is accused of, has been permitted a cumulative total of precisely one consular visit and zero meetings with legal counsel since his arrest.

Many things about the case remain unclear as a result of this seemingly unwarranted cloak of secrecy, but one thing that is known is that Kim is being held in Dandong. Dandong is on the one hand a modern and dynamic city on the banks of the Yalu River, but on the other it is also a place that the North Korean National Security Agency is said to be able to transit with impunity. Thus Kim, it is feared, may not only be getting questioned by Chinese intelligence agents but by their North Korean counterparts as well, and it may well be that the kind of public opprobrium that is currently being heaped upon Lee in Seoul is as nothing compared to the North Korean National Security Agency’s approach to what it sees as the ‘treachery’ of his former boss. 

Nobody is yet willing to stand up and suggest that there is a reason why the head of a pro-North Korea underground party in the 1990s who turned against his comrades would be arrested in China just ten days before the date slated for the election of someone who is, it is rumoured in some quarters, a prominent member of the Chosun Workers' Party in South Korea. Yet it is hard, nay impossible, not to find something about the entire scenario rather compelling once a light is shone upon it.

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