In South Korea, a new documentary is attempting to make the case that the Seoul government’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) is engaging in abusive and coercive techniques to falsely uncover North Korean spies posing as defectors.
The film Spy Nation focuses on one case in particular involving North Korean defector Yu Woo-sung, who was arrested in 2014 on charges of espionage but was acquitted a year later after it was discovered that incriminating documents in the case were fabricated, allegedly by the NIS.
Yu’s case became a widely reported scandal that forced the NIS director Nam Jae-joon to apologize and a high-ranking official with the intelligence service to resign.
The director of Spy Nation, Choi Seung-ho, uses Yu’s case and others documented in the film to argue the NIS’s over-zealous pursuit of spies is a symptom of a powerful and secretive agency reporting only to the president, that operates with little outside oversight or control.
“We need to change legal system so that the NIS is prevented to be involved in all these political things and allow the National Assembly total control over the NIS,” said Choi.
Part of Yu’s case also involves allegations of physical and psychological coercion during the NIS interrogation process.
Prior to his arrest, Yu worked for the Seoul city government assisting recently arrived defectors.
The NIS suspected he was also sending back to North Korea lists of defector names and other sensitive information.
When Yu’s sister, Yu Garyeo, arrived in South Korea to request asylum, she was interrogated by the NIS about her brother’s activities.
Director Choi conducted an interview with Yu Garyeo in which she claimed that the NIS kept her in isolation for weeks at a time, with only her interrogator to talk to, and hit, threatened and harassed her until she agreed to make a false confession implicating herself and her brother in spying for North Korea.
Yu Garyeo was deported and though her brother was acquitted of spying, he lost all claims to government aid for North Korean defectors, after it was discovered that he lived in China and became a Chinese national before attempting to defect.
Over 1,000 North Koreans defect to South Korea every year. They all must undergo debriefings at NIS facilities to weed out potential spies and to gather information on the situation inside the secretive and authoritarian Kim Jong Un government.
North Korean defector and analyst Ahn Chan-il, with the World Institute for North Korean Studies, said the debriefing process can at times be harsh but it is overstated to imply that abuse is both widespread and a generally accepted practice.
“It is true that (NIS officials) may talk in loud voices during the process of checking the status of defectors, and they may use some coercive action if (the defectors) seem suspicious, but this applies only to some specific defectors,” said Ahn.
The threat of espionage has become even more dangerous to national security in this era of cyber-terrorism.
Earlier this year, South Korea's police cyber investigation unit reported that the North had hacked thousands of computers at South Korean firms and government agencies.
There have been cases of North Korean spies posing as defectors. The North Korean intelligence service reportedly uses threats of punishment and imprisonment against the families of defectors to force their compliance.
Choi, the film’s director, is also affiliated with the Korean Center for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit organization funded by small donations from 350,000 people.
The group stresses its journalistic independence to stand up against political pressure, in contrast to established news organizations that he claims have not held government officials accountable for abuses of power.
The Spy Nation director is also featured in the film as he questions defectors and relentlessly badgers government officials on the street and on one occasion at a crowded airport.
The NIS, Choi said, tried unsuccessfully to level both criminal and civil defamation charges against him for his reporting of the case.
“We completely won the civil charge and they sent us a subpoena once for criminal charge but did not send it anymore, so we were acquitted,” Choi said.
Choi expects Spy Nation to be released to a number of South Korean theaters in September.
Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.