News Update

You can’t blame Donald Trump for filling Moon Jae-in’s cabinet with pro-Pyongyang ex-terrorists


Yesterday morning, I was surprised to learn that my tweets about Lee In-young’s master plan to get around sanctions and bail out Kim Jong-un made the Chosun Ilbo and are spreading around Korean YouTube. Because you hate reading long posts—even long posts that you really should read—I decided to hold back for today my examination of why Lee and his colleagues are so motivated to aid and abet Pyongyang’s sanctions-busting, and all of its plans for Seoul’s money.

We might also ask why the North Korean government-controlled Uriminzokki recently quoted another North Korean-controlled outlet that said, “We have great expectations for Lee In-young and Im Jong-seok in the recent shakeup.” Or, why Lee is also eager to distance Seoul from a group that coordinates North Korea policy with Washington, and to continue postponing the military exercises that keep U.S. and South Korean forces ready and interoperable.

Maybe Lee’s motives have something to do with the fact that he’s a founding leader of a former student group called Chondaehyop, the same group that our friend Im Jong-seok also led for a while. Author and tweeter John Cha has even produced this field guide to the Chondaehyop alumni who’ve risen to high office in Moon’s government. You might say that the Moon administration is the Chondaehyop Alumni Association.

And so what was Chondaehyop? A violent, radical student organization that followed the pro-Pyongyang, extreme nationalist National Liberation ideology, and whose power on Korean campuses peaked after 1987, when the country began to hold free elections for the presidency and the National Assembly. Now that Lee is himself before the National Assembly, pending his confirmation as Unification Minister, members like the former North Korean diplomat and current South Korean legislator Thae Yong-ho are asking him if he still believes in Juche (Lee answered that this wasn’t an appropriate question for a lawmaker to ask a nominee for a cabinet position!). Another member asked Lee how many of these things he’ll admit he said:

If these quotes inform us about Chondaehyop’s allegiances, this excerpt from a 1990 Library of Congress country study informs us about its methods:

By the late 1980s, violence-prone student radicals, although a small minority even among politically active students, demonstrated increasing effectiveness in organizing occupations and arson assaults against facilities. In 1988, under the general guidance of the National Association of University Student Councils (Chondaehyop) or the Seoul Area Federation of Student Councils (Soch’ongnyon), small groups of students armed with Molotov cocktails, metal pipes, and occasionally tear gas grenades or improvised incendiary or explosive devices, staged more than two dozen raids on United States diplomatic and military facilities. Students also conducted a similar number of attacks against offices of the government and ruling party and the suburban Seoul residence of former President Chun (see table 13, Appendix).

Anti-United States attacks in 1989 began in February with a seizure of the USIS library in Seoul and attempted arson at the American Cultural Center in Kwangju. Additional incidents continued through the year at about the same level as in 1988, culminating in the violent occupation of the United States ambassador’s residence by six students in December. In the spring of 1989, there were numerous incidents of arson and vandalism against Hyundai automobile showrooms in many cities as Chondaehyop mobilized member organizations nationwide to support a strike by Hyundai shipyard workers. Other attacks occurred throughout the year against Democratic Justice Party (DJP) offices and South Korean government facilities.

As the 1980s ended, however, violence-prone radical groups also suffered setbacks and found themselves under increased pressure from the courts, police, and public and student opinion. The deaths of seven police officers in a fire set by student demonstrators in Pusan in May 1989, the arrest of Chondaehyop leaders on National Security Act charges stemming from the unauthorized travel of a member of the organization to P’yongyang over the summer, and the beating to death of a student informer by activists at one university in Seoul in October contributed to this pressure. In student council elections throughout the country in late 1989, students at many campuses defeated student council officers associated with the Chondaehyop’s “national liberation” strategy, often replacing them with other leaders who favored a “people’s democracy” approach, emphasizing organizational work among farmers and the labor movement over violent assaults on symbolic targets, at least for the near term.

Many South Korean commentators interpreted the outcome of the 1989 campus elections as a renunciation of violent methods or as a turn away from radical student activism. Other observers noted, however, the ideological and organizational complexity of “people’s democracy” elements, some of which had in the past equaled or exceeded Chondaehyop’s commitment to violent activism. As the 1990s began, it seemed likely that at least some radical elements, though perhaps increasingly driven underground like their counterparts in Japan, would remain committed to the use of violence as a political tool. [link]

You could say that sounds like “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents” (see 22 U.S.C. 2656f(d)(2)). Or, if you prefer, these were unlawful and “violent attack[s] upon … internationally protected person[s]” (8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(3)(B)(iii)). Or you could call them “violent acts … that … appear to be intended … to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion” (18 U.S.C. 2331(1)). Any of the varying legal definitions of terrorism in U.S. law would include what Chondaehyop did in the late 1980s—again, after South Korea’s transition to democracy.

[There’s more in the original State Department report]

I’ve often wondered if Lee’s former Chondaehyop comrade, Im Jong-seok, played any role in leading or carrying out the botched firebombing of our Embassy and Consular Annex in Seoul. As it turns out, Im didn’t participate directly in this one—he was arrested the previous December. This does not resolve whether he had any role in planning or approving the attack, and no one has bothered (or perhaps dared) to ask him. It also raises the question of which of these actions Lee In-young played some role in. I hope that in the coming days, the lawmakers will ask Lee a few more questions about violence, even if that means fewer questions about viewpoints.

It may comfort you that as terrorists go, Chondaehyop were unusually inept. But ineptitude and incompetence aren’t legal defenses. Nor are they qualifications for high office. Conversely, it may not be as comforting that the retired leaders of a an anti-American, pro-Pyongyang terrorist organization—who will not renounce their past views—have since been appointed to positions where they can see our secret war plans, influence diplomatic and security policies, and funnel information and money to Pyongyang, thus harming or undermining U.S. interests.

You can blame Trump for plenty, including the decline of our alliance with Korea. But you can’t blame him for Im Jong-seok, Lee In-young, and the rest of the Chondaehyop Alumni Association who are now in a perfect position to paralyze and undermine our North Korea policy and consequently, to endanger our own national security. But yes, pity poor Moon Jae-in. How did all these pro-North Korean, anti-American extremists, ex-terrorists, and convicted felons get themselves appointed to his cabinet? When the autopsy of the alliance is written, we can devote many chapters to Trump’s missteps, and to his gratuitous slights and outrages against a proud people. Just don’t forget to explain the futility of any American president—be it Trump, Clinton, or Biden—building an alliance with any government run by the Chondaehyop Alumni Association.

~   ~   ~

Failed Justice Minister nominee Cho Kuk, by contrast, was a pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninist, and the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy was something else—favoring loony conspiracy theories, holding strongly anti-anti-North Korean and often anti-American views, and still experiencing occasional but surprising lapses of both economic and political liberalism. It, too, is well-represented in the Moon administration.



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