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The Koreas

PYONGYANG WATCH
Spies R Us: Inter-Korean infiltration

By Aidan Foster-Carter

In Korea, as in any conflict situation - and never forget, the Korean War is technically not over yet - it's easy to assume that one side has a monopoly of virtue and the other of vice.

Present global trends tend to reinforce this, with the bullying and deeply counter-productive black and white worldview - if you're not for us, you're against us - that has become the West's menacing mantra since September 11. So this is a good time to recall the shades of gray that make up the real world, and some darker hues on "our" side.

Before the loyalty police cart me off, this doesn't of course mean either indifference or alleging moral equivalence between two sides: be they the United States and Al-Qaeda, or South and North Korea. As regular readers know, I regard the DPRK as a profoundly perverse regime: a menace as much to its own starved citizens as its weapons of mass destruction and maverick behavior make it to the wider world. The ROK, by contrast, has evolved, painfully at times, to join the ranks of the developed industrial democracies.

Yet one of the ways democracy is superior is precisely a willingness to shine a probing light into our own murky corners. With terrorism the shibboleth of the moment, and the presumption that this is something exclusively perpetrated by nasty Them against nice Us, we urgently need a more grown-up world view.

It is pertinent, therefore, to look at infiltration on the Korean peninsula, starting - but not ending - with the better-known and indubitably larger-scale efforts of the North against the South.

Terrorism can take many forms. One of North Korea's hostile habits over the years has been to infiltrate its agents into South Korea. In 1968 a 31-man KPA commando unit, sent to assassinate the then South Korean president Park Chung-hee, got within a mile of the Blue House before even being challenged and gunned down. That didn't stop the North sending in a further 120 agents later that year, to the same fate.

Nor is this old history. Remember those submarines? One night in 1996, an alert taxi driver - where were the coastguard? - saw something suspicious bobbing off a southern beach, like a giant dolphin. It turned out to be a 30 meter long Shark class KPA mini-submarine. A huge manhunt soon found 11 bodies, all shot in the head - presumably by their consent, to avoid capture: their colonel's pistol was still in its holster. Another 11 infiltrators were killed over the next fortnight, and two more seven weeks later, having nearly made it back to the DMZ overland. One agent was caught, and revealed all. Another may have got away.

Kim Young-sam, the ROK's then president, went ballistic. His US allies feared some southern military retaliation, or jeopardy to the still new nuclear Agreed Framework and incipient engagement process. It took three months of pressure from Washington before Pyongyang, which had initially claimed engine trouble caused the sub to drift south - pull the other one, comrades - eventually stated its "deep regret" (the word apology never passes Northern lips), and pledged that "such an incident will not recur".

Oh yeah? Fast forward two years to 1998. Another president, another submarine. This time caught in a southern fishing boat's nets. All nine on board were dead, in another group suicide. Weeks later, the body of a heavily armed KPA frogman washed up on another east coast beach. Later that year the ROK navy chased and sank a DPRK submersible assumed to be landing agents. But unlike Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung took a calm view of all these incidents - and persevered with his patient "Sunshine" policy.

The presumption has to be that North Korean infiltration of the South was and perhaps still is routine. A less publicized case in 1995 from the west coast suggests as much. A captured spy revealed that he had been back and forth several times by mini-submarine, as if by bus, living for months on end in the ROK. But this can shade over into paranoia, as when the top-level northern defector, Hwang Jang-yop, allegedly claimed that up to 50,000 South Koreans are spying for the North - most of these being actual sSoutherners rather than infiltrators. He has notably failed to name names.

Some on the extreme right in Seoul, a nasty and bone-headed bunch, even see Kim Dae-jung and the "Sunshine" policy as agents of a Pyongyang plot. The manifest Northern incompetence revealed in losing a pair of submarines - to adapt Oscar Wilde, once might be accounted a misfortune, but twice looks like carelessness - seems scant consolation to those in the South who overplay the threat from the North.

Thus the premise of the 1999 hit South Korean thriller film Swiri is that a crack KPA special forces unit resides semi-permanently in the South, where it strikes with virtual impunity: gunning down targets, hijacking a top secret new ROK weapon in broad daylight, and about to blow up a stadium where the presidents of North and South are together watching a unified Korean football team for the 2002 World Cup. (This political twist, that the KPA might sabotage their own leaders for making peace, is the best part of an otherwise over-excited plot. And as for the sexy lady KPA sharpshooter whose lurv for a southern agent proves greater than for Kim Jong-il, purleez!)

So that's what North Korea does, in fact and fantasy. What about the free world? Are ROK hands clean? Or does the South, too, send infiltrators North? I couldn't possibly comment. At least, not until next time.

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