The strange story of South Korea's sympathy for a spy

A returned South Korean hero, now arrested, divides generations.

When Song Doo-yul returned after 37 years in Germany, it was officially treated as the homecoming of the nation's best known overseas dissenter. State media hailed him as a "fighter for democracy." A writer and theorist worshiped by the current generation of South Korean students, Mr. Song escaped South Korea's dictatorship in the 1960s, a time when many vocal intellectuals simply disappeared.

Yet in the two months since Song's return, his story has taken a weird twist. Korean intelligence has produced reams of evidence showing that the democracy activist and champion of human rights has actually been living a double life as one Kim Chul-su, an alternate member of the North Korean politburo.

Despite condemning the lack of freedoms in South Korea from the academic greenswards of Germany, he visited the totalitarian regime in Pyongyang at least 18 times as a Korean Workers Party member, accepted funds from the North, and has been shown recently on TV, crying next to Kim Jong Il at the 1994 funeral of Kim Il Sung.

But the strangest twist of all may be the subdued reaction from the public and a less than punitive approach by the government.

"The non-reaction in Seoul to someone venerated for years as a pro-democracy activist is what I find most interesting," says Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation here. "The government wants to stick with him. They don't want to kick him out. A spy who became a German citizen comes home, and is treated with nonchalance by the public. The feeling about him is 'that was then, and this is now.' It's pretty amazing."

Among public figures and elites, however, the case of Song, who was finally detained in late October after a healthy stretch of TV and media interviews, is a battle for South Korea's identity. It is a clash over a society still riven by conflicting loyalties and a legacy of a divided peninsula. Serious schisms have erupted in recent years between younger and older generations, and between pro- and anti-engagement policies regarding the gulag-studded regime of Kim Jong Il.

The question: How does society handle a freedom fighter who now appears to have been a full-bore collaborator?

Song - still technically barred from returning home - came back knowing his case would be a red flag, sources say, but said upon his return that South Korea has now "changed."

Leniency for collaborator

Indeed, President Roh Moo-hyun suggested Song should be treated with leniency - itself quite a change, since under South Korean law collaboration with a "primary enemy" is prosecutable as a capital crime. But Mr. Roh and his executive "Blue House" inner circle, well stocked with veteran democracy activists who were jailed in the 1960s and 70s, feel it is time for a magnanimous approach.

"Stern legal punishment is important, but showing South Korean tolerance to the world will also be meaningful," Roh said, after Song's interviews with Korean intelligence began to leak last month.

This doesn't sit well with human rights activists and conservatives who are deeply suspicious of the North, with which the South has never ended the war. Only last week, the South Korean military balked at the idea of having US troops leave the DMZ where the North attacked more than 50 years ago.

A defector's treatment

Moreover, these voices point out, Song is getting far better treatment and official appreciation than Hwang Jong Yop, the high-level 1996 defector from North Korea who at one point was Kim Il Sung's right hand man. While Song - a suspected spy - was allowed press conferences and TV appearances, the elderly Mr. Hwang is kept under strict control, and may not be interviewed. Until the US Congress applied pressure this fall, Hwang had not been allowed to travel to answer questions on the Kim regime, under rules created in order to engage the North. Does not Hwang deserve tolerance, they ask?

"This can be called nothing else but 'appeasement,'" says one professor about efforts to sweep Song's past under the rug. "There are kids still in jail for having North Korean flags in their rooms, but everyone is apologizing for Song."

Song left South Korea in 1967 after several run-ins with the authoritarian regime of Park Chung-hee. He took up residence in Germany, and was naturalized there in 1993.

Academic view of the North

Song is best known as a devotee of theorist J├╝rgen Habermas, and has spent most of his life developing an approach to studying North Korea through what is known as the "inherent method." The approach stresses study of cultures from the standards those cultures themselves employ for their orientation and rules.

It first appeared as a tool for understanding the Soviet Union. Inherent method has had a mixed reception, and is most often criticized on the grounds that some adherents argue that since regimes like the Soviet Union or North Korea see the world so differently, and use different standards, it is fruitless to bring outside judgment on them.

In recent years of South Korean engagement with the North, Song's theories took on a romantic cast to a generation of students who admire Kim Jong Il's adroit policies, even while those students feel it is wrong to judge his often harsh treatment of his people.

One university professor in South Korea who requested anonymity, and who has colleagues that know Song, say that he is probably incapable of being any kind of effective spy, and has lived most of his life in an intellectual fog.

"His work and beliefs strike me as an example of what Orwell meant when he says there are some things are so silly that only an intellectual could believe them," the professor says. "I tell my students that it may be important for a policeman to understand a murderer; but that doesn't mean the policeman has no right to judge whether the murderer is wrong."

Professional moniker

Sources also say that while Song is often referred to as a "professor" at Muenster, he actually is not a real one. He is what's known as an "Ausserplanmeister," or "extraordinary professor." In US parlance, he might be called a lecturer, except that he doesn't teach or receive a regular salary.

One source stated that Song's German has never been polished, making it difficult for students to understand him.

"He lectures on an irregular basis and has no fixed chair," according to Gerd Benke of the German Embassy in Seoul. "But he did pass a rigorous process to become an extraordinary professor."

Prosecutors going ahead

At present, South Korean prosecutors are planning to go ahead with a preliminary trial, armed with 70 pages of evidence, including a statement by Hwang that he saw and could identify that Song served as an alternate member of the Politburo, making him No. 28 in the North Korean hierarchy. Song's lawyer says his client denies ever being a North official and has offered to give up his membership in the Korean Workers Party.

German embassy officials point out that Song has stated he will give up his German citizenship, but that he has not done so to date. They refused to state whether he wants to be extradited or whether a trial will take place.

"Eveything is still under discussion. We don't yet know the outcome of this," says Mr. Benke.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.