A seductress who had an ear for secrets

Special to The Times

She’s called the Mata Hari of North Korea, a temptress-spy who for years used her sensual charms to seduce South Korean military officers into giving up secrets.

The method was potentially lethal: Won Jeong-hwa reportedly plotted to assassinate South Korean agents with poisoned needles provided by handlers from Pyongyang.

The 34-year-old North Korean native was arrested during the summer along with her 63-year-old stepfather and accused of engaging in espionage and deceit for seven years after defecting to South Korea. Under questioning, she detailed for investigators a double life working for one of the world’s most repressive regimes.


The case of Won, only the second North Korean spy to face trial here in the last decade, has riveted the South Korean public and embarrassed the nation’s vaunted intelligence network. The press has dubbed her Mata Hari, after the notorious dancer-turned-World War I agent.

After arriving in 2001 at Seoul’s Incheon airport, Won was touted by South Korean authorities as a model defector and assigned to tour military bases to lecture troops on the evils of the Stalinist state.

All the while, prosecutors said, she pursued her real agenda: collecting photos of military installations and weapons systems and keeping lists of North Korean defectors and personal data about Southern military officers.


North denies association

The life and motives of Won remain a mystery. Was she a major North Korean operative, as authorities claim? Or merely a hapless former thief brainwashed by the North to provide information that amounted to nothing more than what could be found on the Internet, as her court-appointed lawyer insists?

North Korea denies that Won, who is awaiting sentencing, was its agent, calling her “human scum” and describing the case as a “threadbare charade” to embarrass the North, which has remained technically at war with the South since their conflict ended in an armistice in 1953.

Last week, Won appeared in a crowded courtroom in Suwon as a three-judge panel considered her fate. Dressed in prison-issue top and pants, her hair tied in a ponytail, she avoided eye contact with observers and focused on the judges as the prosecutor read a long list of charges against her.


One of her main missions, the prosecution said, was to locate Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean defector, who is guarded by police against assassination attempts.

Many say the case, reminiscent of the darkest days of the Cold War, raises questions about how many North Korean spies might be operating in the South. About 4,500 Northern operatives have been exposed since 1948.

“This is only the tip of the iceberg,” said Dong-bok Lee, a former South Korean intelligence officer. “And apparently these planted North Korean agents have been very free to go about their work.”

During the hourlong hearing, Won, the mother of a 7-year-old, pleaded for leniency, her voice breaking in the hushed courtroom.

“I wanted to turn myself in but I couldn’t, because my family is in the North and they could be executed,” she sobbed. “Please let me live with my daughter while I repent myself.”

Won has told investigators that she is a second-generation North Korean spy -- the youngest daughter of an operative killed during an espionage mission in the South.


Authorities say she served time for theft in the North and feared she would be executed. She fled to China but soon returned and was recruited by North Korea’s National Security Agency.

Her first assignment as a spy was to return to China to identify and send back home -- to certain imprisonment or death -- fellow North Koreans there who were trying to defect to the South.

While in China, she became pregnant by a South Korean businessman she met there.


Arriving in disguise

Won came to South Korea later that year disguised as a Chinese Korean looking for her baby’s father.

She had considered an abortion but was persuaded by handlers to have the baby as a way to dispel suspicion in the South, according to South Korean press reports.

After passing the detailed debriefing all defectors undergo at the hands of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, Won was assigned the task of delivering anti-North lectures at military bases.

Over the next year and a half, she gave scores of talks to soldiers, employing North Korean propaganda videos. Won used the occasions to befriend and seduce South Korean military officers, authorities say.


In all, Won maintained romantic relations with three or four officers and used sex as a tool, investigators said.

They also say she lived with a 26-year-old South Korean army captain who knew she was a spy. He too was arrested.

Won traveled to China a dozen times over five years to report to Northern authorities and receive instructions and the needles she was to use to kill South Korean agents, authorities said.

She was arrested in August, three years after South Korean agents began monitoring her because of a report by a military officer she had approached for information.

Many have doubts about the extent of Won’s spying, including some defectors with insight into the regime in Pyongyang.

“It is probably true that she received espionage orders from North Korea. But she doesn’t seem one of those special spy agents who are dispatched directly by the government,” said Zhu Sung-ha, who fled the North in 2001. “She may have approached North Korean agents to make money.”


Others say that in any case, Won seriously damaged the cause of the 15,000 legitimate North Korean defectors now living in the South.

“There’s already a deeply embedded reluctance by South Korean society to accept these people. Now there’s an excuse for people to give in to their worst instincts,” said Tim Peters, a Christian activist and founder of Helping Hands Korea, a defector support group.

“People may use this spy case in an amplified and exaggerated way to say: ‘This is what we were afraid of. Let’s put on the brakes and protect our economy rather than help those poor North Korean relatives sitting on our doorstep.’ ”


Death penalty possible

Though Won could receive the death penalty when she is sentenced Oct. 15, South Korean authorities are seeking far lesser punishment.

In court, the prosecution asked for a five-year sentence, saying it believed Won regretted her spying. “The accused has been quite cooperative in investigations, repenting deeply her past. Her statements helped us arrest her stepfather,” the prosecuting attorney said.

Asked by the judge to make a final statement, Won muttered incoherently in a shaky voice. She eventually wept, citing “[emotional] pains in [her] heart.”


But her written statements to investigators present a more forthright case to save her life.

“I endured difficult training and worked hard to carry out missions as an agent, believing that rendering loyalty [to the North’s leader] is everything,” she wrote. “But while living in the South, I started to have doubts about the North Korean regime, and my mind was in emotional conflict.”

She added: “It is my sin to have been born in the North.”


Times staff writer Glionna reported from Beijing and special correspondent Lee from Suwon.