The spy who wasn't a spy: A tale of two Koreas

Just a few years ago, Yu Woo-sung was thriving. He had fled his native North Korea and resettled in the South. Unlike many defectors from the totalitarian state, he had adapted well to his new country’s fast-paced, capitalist society. He had a degree in business from one of the country’s top universities and a civil service job in Seoul’s city government.

But Yu’s dream turned to nightmare in 2013, when he was arrested on espionage charges by the National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s main spy agency, which accused him of using his job to gather information on defectors living in Seoul, and relaying it back to North Korea.

Yu spent more than a year trying to prove the charges were trumped up, and finally prevailed in 2014. But he is still struggling to put his life back together.

His story is at the center of "Spy Nation," a confrontational film that recently premiered, and won top documentary honors, at the Jeonju International Film Festival, South Korea’s second-largest movie event after the Busan International Film Festival.

Director Choi Seung-ho said he was drawn to Yu’s story because it highlights how, despite being a functioning democracy, South Korea has yet to fully shrug off the legacy of the dictatorships that ruled the country until the late 1980s.

“These types of abuses have been happening for so long, but the public mostly isn’t aware of them, and the NIS hasn’t been reformed,” Choi said in an interview.

In South Korea's tradition of filmmaking as activism, “Spy Nation” documents a number of cases, including Yu’s, of South Koreans who were accused by the NIS of spying, only to later be exonerated..

“Powerful institutions like the NIS need to be monitored by citizens, otherwise they become monsters,” Choi said.

Choi, who has a longstanding reputation as a muckraker, spends much of “Spy Nation” on camera, accosting NIS officials outside their offices, asking them to explain what Choi describes as abuses of their power. The NIS argues that its work is necessary to protect South Korea and prevent infiltration by spies from nuclear-armed North Korea.

In one of the most discomfiting scenes in “Spy Nation,” Choi jostles with NIS officials as they try to leave a court parking lot, then stands in front of their car to prevent them from leaving before answering his queries about Yu’s case.

Yu came to South Korea in 2004, seeking a brighter future. As a member of a small ethnic Chinese minority, he had few employment opportunities in North Korea.  Since his family lived close to China, he was able to make trips buying and selling goods over the border.

In China, Yu saw a world of wealth and decided to defect.

He thrived in the South. In his government job, he connected vulnerable residents of the city with social welfare programs. He said he encountered many North Korean defectors in his work, and could relate to them better than other city workers.

Then came the allegations. The NIS hung its case on testimony from Yu’s younger sister, who said he was a spy for North Korea, and on records of trips the agency claimed Yu had made to North Korea to confer with intelligence agents there. But the case began to crumble in early 2014 when those two key pieces of evidence were called into question.

The agency later admitted to having forged the documents. Yu’s sister, who had arrived in South Korea in late 2012, said she had testified that her brother was a spy only because she was pressured during violent interrogations.

Yu’s case has numerous precedents in South Korean history. In perhaps the best-known case, eight men were executed for spying in 1975 and cleared posthumously in 2007.

Outside experts have also voiced concern about the sometimes-severe interrogations carried out on newly arrived defectors from North Korea.

“Given that the interrogation involves long periods in isolation and various pressure techniques, for some North Koreans the process can bring to mind the kind of government surveillance they experienced in North Korea," said Markus Bell, a Ph.D. candidate at the Australian National University who researches North Korean migration and resettlement.

The release of “Spy Nation”comes at a time of concern about declining freedom of expression in South Korea. The country fell 10 spots to No. 70 in the 2016 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. In explaining the drop, the group cited the South Korean government’s “growing inability to tolerate criticism” and “meddling in the already polarized media.”

This hardening climate hit the film world in 2014, when the Busan festival had its government funding cut by about half in apparent retaliation for screening a controversial documentary about the sinking of the Sewol ferry, which claimed more than 300 lives.

The documentary, called “The Truth Will Not Sink With the Sewol,” accused the government of botching efforts to rescue passengers.

“Spy Nation” is scheduled for a theatrical release in South Korea in October. In the meantime, Choi said, he is working on screenings at overseas festivals.

Though “Spy Nation” provides a blow-by-blow of Yu’s legal ordeal, it provides no detail on how he’s living now, and how his personal life has changed in wake of the ordeal.

Though Yu was acquitted of espionage, he was convicted of concealing the fact that he had Chinese nationality when he came to South Korea (he had spent time in China before coming to South Korea, and was able to receive Chinese citizenship thanks to his ethnicity).

He was ordered to pay back the more than $20,000 in government aid that North Korean defectors typically receive, and was stripped of his South Korean passport. He says he is now stateless, and staying in South Korea illegally.

Reached by phone, Yu said that he now scrapes by stringing together whatever part-time work he can find, including day labor, earning about $6 an hour. He said he is regularly harassed online by right-wing activists who still insist he is a spy plotting to overthrow South Korea’s democracy.

Last year, Yu married an attorney who had been representing him pro bono, and he is now looking for a stable job. He hopes the worst is over.

“I just don’t want to battle any more,” he said. “I’m trying to live like a normal person.”

Borowiec is a special correspondent.

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