Kwak In Su on Being a North Korean Spy and North Korea’s Strategy towards South Korea
By: Matthew McGrath
The North Korea Strategy Center’s lecture series, “Strategies for Change: A Speaker Series on North Korea” continued on April 2nd with a talk featuring Dr. Kwak In Su, an ex-North Korean spy and author of “No One Reported Me: the Reality of North Korea’s Strategy Towards South Korea.” Dr. Kwak’s lecture focused on his experiences as a spy operating in South Korea and his analysis of North Korea’s strategy toward the South.
Dr. Kwak defected from North Korea in 1995 after he was captured by South Korean authorities on his second mission in the South. His first deployment to South Korea was in 1990, during which he met with and extracted Lee Sun Shil, a top North Korean agent who had been based on Jeju Island for 10 years. After being captured, Dr. Kwak was required to work at South Korea’s Defense Security Command until 2006. In 2008, he received his Ph.D. from the University of North Korean Studies and started to work as a researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy.
During the lecture portion of his talk, Dr. Kwak spoke about North Korea’s strategy toward South Korea, the ultimate goal of which is to “achieve democracy and revolution” in South Korea. The ideological framework for achieving this goal is outlined in a book written by Kim Jong Il in 1991 entitled, “About Powerfully Pushing Revolution toward South Korea by Raising Dignity of the Juche Ideology.” In this text, Kim Jong Il described revolution against the South as a three-step process composed of “objective means and measures.” The first and most important of these is 1) the withdrawal of U.S. armed forces from the Korean Peninsula; 2) to establish an independent democratic government; and, 3) the construction of a socialist society in which “the people become the owner of the country.” Dr. Kwak noted that the North Korean understanding of democracy is a system of governance in which “power is centered in the party,” as opposed to the people.
Dr. Kwak identified two stages of actions in regards to North Korea’s strategy for achieving revolution in South Korea: the Present Time stage and the Crucial Time stage. The Present Time stage refers to a preparatory period during which the DPRK should conserve its capabilities. The Crucial Time stage is “when taking the regime [in South Korea] is possible.” Dr. Kwak noted that as time went on, North Korea’s strategy for achieving revolution in South Korea has changed. In the past, “North Korea tried to change South Korea though violence, but these days the North Korean regime thinks they can change the South Korean regime through elections,” Dr. Kwak said. He also added that the current focus of North Korea’s strategy is “on constructing a liberal party” in South Korea. Later during the Q&A portion of the talk, Dr. Kwak mentioned that “I don’t really know how many North Korean spies are holding positions of power in South Korea. I do know, however, a lot of North Korean spies are holding power in South Korean society, some North Korean spies were assemblymen or and assemblyman’s secretary… they were ordinary people in South Korea but were promoted to positions of power.”
The audience took a great interest in understanding the details of Dr. Kwak’s recruitment, training, and deployment as a DPRK agent, which he explained in greater detail after he concluded his lecture remarks. Regarding his selection and training, Dr. Kwak said he was tapped while attending Kim Jong Il Political Military University, which is a training ground for spies who would eventually work in Unit No. 695 or Liaison 130. The school has four grades of roughly 70-80 students per class. According to Dr. Kwak, each year five to ten students are scouted to operate as spies while other graduates generally work as operators, providing guidance to spies who are abroad. In terms of his training, Dr. Kwak said that prior to a mission he would train for six months to one year before deployment. During this period, background information and mission goals were clearly explained to him, so he began each mission with a solid understanding of his objectives.
Participants were also eager to learn about the breadth of North Korea’s spy operations, asking Dr. Kwak where North Korea deploys its agents. “North Korea dispatches spies to every country in the world,” he said. “The main targets are the United States, Japan, and South Korea.” He added that spies are often sent to China – not to collect information, but to change their citizenship to gain entry to other countries in Southeast Asia, South America, Europe, and even South Korea or the United States.
Overall, Dr. Kwak was not very enthused about being selected as a spy. If someone had asked if he wanted to be a spy, Dr. Kwak said, “I would have chosen not to be a spy… the party forced me to be a spy and if I rejected that decision I would have be punished.” He added that after being captured he had not heard anything about his family, other than they had been purged.