This article was originally published May 14, 2017. Im Jong-seok has now been mentioned as President’s Moon’s possible nominee for the post of unification minister.
As US investigators hunkered down last week to investigate whether US President Donald Trump’s election campaign colluded with a hostile government, South Korea’s new president was appointing a right-hand man about whom there could be no doubt.
Im Jong-seok served a prison term for behavior that a court considered aiding his country’s main enemy, North Korea. Im was convicted and sentenced in 1989 after arranging an illegal visit to Pyongyang by a fellow leftist activist, a visit that North Korea’s regime milked for propaganda advantage. And now he’s chief of staff to president-elect Moon Jae-in.
There seems to be little surprise in Seoul about the appointment of Im, who’s now 51. After all, Moon is a former militant anti-government activist. Later, he was a close supporter of two earlier presidents’ decade-long pursuit of the “Sunshine” policy of making nice to the North in the hope the two could negotiate their differences.
Moon has since his election sought to downplay his differences with US policy toward North Korea. So the suggestion that Im’s appointment sounds like an appalling development is left to just a few observers.
Those include the conservative Liberty Korea Party, which expressed “regret” and said the move intensifies concerns about Moon’s own position toward North Korea.
Another is yours truly, who happened to be in Pyongyang in 1989 – for the World Festival of Students and Youth, when the activist’s forbidden visit occurred – and again in 1992, when the Northern regime was showing off the propaganda fruits. Here’s the story:
Whatever cosmetic touches North Korea had employed to inflate its claims of having created a “paradise,” and however far behind South Korea – and China – it had fallen in reality, the country in 1989 still managed an appearance of dynamism that appealed to some people outside its borders.
The ideology was even proving exportable to South Korea. A virulent Pyongyang fever on campuses had become a severe complicating factor in the South’s quest for stability.
Radically inclined South Korean students were attracted to North Korean President Kim Il-sung’s teachings of revolutionary egalitarianism, economic self-sufficiency, unification zeal and anti-Americanism. His pre-liberation guerrilla opposition to the Japanese made him a patriot hero in their eyes.
Based on that interest, the Kims appeared to continue hoping that a resurgence of unrest in the South would lead to a leftist insurrection, reversing the otherwise clear course of history and paving the way to reunification on Pyongyang’s terms.
Until then, the major influences on Koreans in the South as well as the North had been authoritarian. They had lived under the dynastic system of royalty and hereditary nobles backed up with Chinese Confucian thought. Then they had lived under the emperor-worshipping Japanese colonial regime.
The only major difference was that from 1945 South Korea received American influence; North Korea received Soviet and then Chinese communist influence. American-style democracy was far from transforming South Korean politics completely. The authoritarian tradition held sway among political leaders of all stripes even after a relatively free election in 1987.
It was thus not unreasonable to imagine, as did many in the North and some in the South, that American influence was just a thin veneer that could be replaced with socialist and communist ideas. By 1989, the campus atmosphere in the South had become reminiscent of Americans’ 1960s slogan, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”
The substantial number of South Korean scholars who had learned enough overseas about communist thinking to reject it were, by the time of their return to teaching posts back home, too old and established to be considered trustworthy advisers by the student radicals.
Outright pro-communist propaganda had some enthusiastic fans. So did some foreign scholars’ revisionist theories that condemned the roles of the American and South Korean governments while going easy on criticism of the Northern regime.
Earlier, the South had banned books on such topics; South Koreans who had been attracted to Marxist ideas while studying abroad were in no position to propagate them publicly after their return home. A belated grant of democratic freedoms after 1987 had suddenly allowed Southerners to flirt with Marxism and North Korean ideology.
After decades without contact with such ideas, perhaps it should not have been surprising that substantial numbers in the South were not inoculated with the skepticism needed to counter the simple, if often deceptive, appeal of Northern propaganda. The inherent attraction of the new and previously forbidden enhanced the sensation.
With North Koreans themselves practicing the same type of Stalinism that briefly appealed to some leftist Americans in the Depression years of the 1930s, it was almost as if Koreans on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone had traveled back five decades in an intellectual time machine.
South Korean officials were at wit’s end trying to cope. American military and diplomatic policymakers, too, were concerned. A big part of the problem was that South Korean students did not know the North – still were not permitted to go there without special permission.
When their government insisted that the North was a bleak place, they considered what the government had told them previously and, perhaps understandably, decided not to believe it.
One evening I went to see the celebrated stage musical “Flower Girl,” a propaganda production of Kim Jong-il. I would find it to be up to the tearjerker standard of “Les Miserables,” which I’d just seen on Broadway. Just before the curtain rose for the first act the guest of honor swept into the theatre, receiving a standing ovation.
Im Su-gyong, a beautiful South Korean university student, had defied her government by visiting Pyongyang via a third country to attend the youth festival. She was promoting a pro-unification scheme for a student march from the northern end of the peninsula, across the normally un-passable Demilitarized Zone and down to the southern tip.
Her arrival in Pyongyang created pandemonium. Northerners, evidently genuinely delighted and moved by her visit, mobbed her. In the televised arrival scene, the jostled cameraman was unable to keep his camera still, resulting in a then rare bit of spontaneous television.
Im Su-gyong soon returned to the South, where she – along with Im Jong-seok and the Reverend Moon Ik-hwan, a dissident leader who had accompanied her – was jailed for violating the National Security Act. (Back then they romanized her surname as ‘Lim’ and apparently the two Ims aren’t related.)
Im Su-gyong’s imprisonment only made her a martyr to the Southern radicals’ cause – to the delight of the authorities in the North, who turned their attention to making domestic propaganda out of her plight.
During another visit to Pyongyang in 1992, I was taken to an art studio where the main non-Kim subject of the artists turned out to be Im Su-gyong. There were sculptures of her and paintings galore, in a variety of poses, the most dramatic a courtroom scene from her trial in Seoul.
The image of ideological purity that Pyongyang projected appealed to the South Korean radicals’ tendency to see issues in black and white.
The propaganda mills of Pyongyang never failed to point out that the South still suffered the ignominy of having foreign troops on its soil, “controlling” its armed forces, buying its women, golfing on its prime real estate and disseminating crass American culture over one of the most desirable of the scarce television channels.
The fact that US troops were there to deter another invasion by the North like the one in 1950 was never mentioned – Northern propaganda still claimed it was the South that had invaded.
Pyongyang’s call for immediate reunification – its means for completing the revolution – had a simple appeal compared with the more complex and cautious South Korean policy.
Pyongyang presented early reunification as a spiritual as well as a practical imperative for achieving Korea’s destiny as a major nation, free of contaminating foreign influence and able to stand alone, whole, combining the North’s considerable mineral resources with the South’s arable land. “If our country is reunified it will be rich in food,” a cooperative farm’s director told me.
Pyongyang continued to insist publicly that it had no interest in unifying the peninsula by force. Many young South Koreans fell for this, failing to realize that the Northern regime knew it was doomed if it could not prevail absolutely.
Besides its reunification policy, North Korea’s emphasis on economic equality exerted enough pull on some South Korean radicals to overcome the clear fact that South Korea had advanced much farther and faster economically through capitalism.
Pyongyang’s leaders hoped to use young South Koreans’ admiration for Kim Il-sung’s ideas to revolutionize the South and win the race despite Seoul’s advantages. South Korea had a few thousand radical disciples of Kim Il-sung, problem enough for the authorities in Seoul.
But to hear it from North Korean propaganda, one would have thought almost the entire Southern population was ready to worship Kim. Since there was virtually no information available to the contrary, people in the North seemed to believe all this.
As has often been reported, radios available to ordinary citizens really were built so that they could receive only government broadcasts. The newspapers purveyed strictly the party line.
But to some extent the joke was on the Northern propagandists who had encouraged Im Su-gyong’s visit, as I found years later when I interviewed defectors to the South such as Ahn Myong-chol, a former prison camp guard. I asked Ahn if he’d known anything about South Korea before his defection in 1994.
“Only that it was better off economically than North Korea,” he replied. “When I watched televised demonstrations in South Korea I could see the buildings in the background – the South Koreans looked pretty well off. I heard rumors of vast numbers of cars. The big year was 1989.”
And then Ahn got off this zinger: “After Im Su-gyong’s visit, people’s thought changed. They figured North Korea couldn’t feed them, but South Korea was better off. It was seeing her appearance – she seemed well off, acted free and confident.”
Another defector interviewee, Nam Chung, had escaped in 1997 after being banished from Pyongyang and sent to a mining camp with other family members to atone for the sins of his elder brother, a student in Moscow who had defected to South Korea.
“I first heard in 1994 that my brother was in South Korea,” Nam told me. “I started wondering why he would go there, after all the bad things I had learned about South Korea.”
And then, said Nam, “I saw Im Su-gyong and Moon Ik-hwan on television, then reports of their jailing after they came to North Korea. But when they came we could see they were well-fed. Then she got out of jail, after only three years, and had a child. I thought they must have a lot of freedom in South Korea – only three years, then marriage and a child.
“Then there are the film clips of students demonstrating,” Nam continued. “It’s unthinkable in North Korea – we couldn’t even dream of such a thing. The North Korean media played it as a problem, but I thought, ‘If they have that kind of freedom to fight the police, what’s the rest of the society like?’
“And they weren’t starving. That’s when I started criticizing the cronies under the Kims. I wouldn’t dare criticize the Kims themselves.”
And what, one wonders, has new Presidential Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok learned over the decades since 1989? News reports say he’s continued to be suspected of pro-Pyongyang leanings. I guess we’ll find out, one way or the other.
Veteran Asia correspondent Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, some passages from which are excerpted in this article.