The North Koreans are great at political theatre. The latest example: the arrest of a North Korean defector who had re-entered the country with the purpose of blowing up monuments. Detained before carrying out these “hideous crimes,” he asked for a press conference which took place last Thursday at the People's Palace of Culture; the KCNA covered the story at unusual length and according to its report journalists from around the world—including the US—were also there.
Jon Yong Chol told a tale of woe in South Korea, where unable to get a job he was approached by Kim Song Min of the Front for Liberation of North Korean People or the North Korea People’s Liberation Front, a paramilitary organization of former North Korean soldiers founded in 2010. But behind Kim Song Min were South Korean intelligence operatives, who in turn “sped to the U.S. saying that the program should finally be approved by the U.S. to get funded.” According to KCNA, Jon Yong Chol provided “detailed facts” of US involvement—although these “detailed facts” were not shared—making the US (you guessed it) a state sponsor of terrorism.
Unfortunately, this episode is potentially serious. The DPRK Foreign Ministry quickly got into the act saying it would have to “totally reexamine the nuclear issue,” raising the question of whether the North Koreans are now looking for pretexts to test. The State Department thought it worthwhile to restate the administration's policy of no hostile intent.
Who knows? Maybe the South Korean intelligence apparatus does see some value in stirring up this kind of trouble or maybe the NK Peoples Liberation Front is free-lancing. The US does in fact fund “subversive” organizations, including broadcasting into North Korea. The KCNA story specifically mentions Radio Free North Korea and Radio North Korean Reform. The National Endowment for Democracy has funded a variety of media projects, and the re-authorization of the North Korean Human Rights Act, passed by the House, reiterates the goal of broadcasting 12 hours a day into the DPRK (the National Committee on North Korea provides a summary and text of the draft legislation). In testimony last year before House Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Bob King offered up a succinct overview of US human rights efforts in the country. The following is worth quoting:
“Between FY 2008-2011, the Department received $9.5 million in ESF funds within the Governing Justly and Democratically objective to promote rule of law and human rights, increase media freedom, and build civil society in North Korea. These funds also support efforts to build the capacity of the defector and NGO community in the ROK to better advocate for improved conditions inside the DPRK.”
We have not seen the list of end-users of these funds although it certainly includes the VOA and probably a number of efforts also being funded by the NED.
But the NK People’s Liberation Front looks pretty sketchy to us and the idea that they would need the US or South Korean authorities to fund their operations seems implausible on its face. But as we always say, who knows? The only certainty from this story is that if Jon Yong Chol is not wholly fabricated, he is no doubt headed for a firing squad.