In every way, Yu Woo-seong was a model defector. In his early 30s, he was smart, friendly, ambitious and well-liked. Despite the fact that he had been in South Korea for less than six years, Yu managed to work through his university studies while adapting remarkably well to his new environment, finishing his bachelor’s degree in 2011.
While taking on organizing roles in a number of Seoul-based clubs and organizations created by North Korean defectors to help new arrivals, Yu gained entry into a master’s degree program, majoring in education in social welfare. Less than one year into his graduate studies he was hired by Seoul City Hall as a special attaché for North Korean defector projects. In every way, he was a model assimilation case – until early this year, when he was arrested as a North Korean spy.
The evidence against him was based on testimony from his sister, who attempted to defect in October 2012. During an intense and highly secretive interrogation by the National Information Service (NIS) that all defectors are subject to upon entering the country, Yu’s sister, Yu Ga-ryeo, “confessed” her brother was a spy. The plot took a further twist when, on March 5, after 179 days in detention, his sister retracted her accusations against her brother, claiming that she had been subject to physical and psychological abuse at the hands of NIS agents and deceived into making the confession. A number of facts continue to be shrouded in secrecy; one detail, however, emerged as incontrovertible fact – Yu and his family are Chinese nationals who were born in North Korea.
Further to the ambiguity regarding the significance of Yu’s ethnic background and the difficulties of potentially unravelling the twine of blood and nationhood that marks the socio-political fabric of both Koreas, are basic questions of human rights.
In the modern, robust democracy that is South Korea, is it right – both morally and in the eyes of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – that a person arriving and claiming asylum can be detained for up to 180 days? During this time an individual is subject to round-the-clock interrogation without legal representation. Questions including but not limited to place of origin, their motivation and method of escape, their political sympathies, their family networks, their day-to-day life in North Korea, their movements and activities since they were born, their medical history and much more are asked at all times of day and night.
The question is not one of whether or not the government should be permitted to take the means necessary to defend its borders and citizens. Rather, it is of accountability. The period of time during which agents of the state interrogate asylum seekers continues to be cloistered from the gaze of the public in every way possible – a mysterious process through which it is ascertained – to some vague degree – that an individual is, or is not, an enemy agent and a genuine asylum-seeking North Korean.
The general public seems at best oblivious to this process that is carried out in its name, and to some degree the absence of public discussion on this subject approaches the tacit condoning of these practices. It must be asked, given the potential physical and psychological harm a process like this can cause, whether it is any surprise that thousands of North Koreans are re-migrating to third countries as soon as they can muster enough funds.
This is all possible because, on many levels, aspects of the Cold War linger on in Northeast Asia and cries of “spy” and “communist” still bring to attention (and to heel) the general public in passions which are only matched by their complete apathy towards matters pertaining to North Korean new arrivals, the much romanticised idea of reunification, and human rights.
Yu’s case has underlined the apathy that is endemic in South Korean society, towards human rights and towards issues pertaining to that whose name cannot be spoken – North Korea. This disheartening fact is only compounded when we are faced with a North Korean defector community incapable or ill-prepared to fight for the human rights of defectors in South Korea (that is saying nothing about the human rights of North Koreans in North Korea), a divided leftist activist community, and questions about what constitutes a defector.
On August 22, after eight months in solitary confinement, during which the highlight of each day was a one-hour exercise period – time also passed alone – Yu Woo-seong walked out of the In-deok detention center in south Seoul a free man. In his verdict reading earlier that day, the judge ruled Yu innocent of all charges.
As the dust settles and the media loses interest in the latest spy scandal to capture its interest it is worth considering that perhaps Yu’s greatest crime was simply that he was more successful than other North Koreans at being a model defector. This case further highlights the need for media reporting that questions, rather than parrots the government announcements and that still values the old legal maxim “innocent until proven guilty.”
Markus Bell is a PhD candidate at the ANU. Sarah Chee is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz.