Sep 7, 2008
By Lee Tee Jong, South Korea Correspondent
The Straits Times (Singapore)
Seoul – She is attractive and intelligent, an irresistible siren to the men she courted, especially military officers. Several of them came under her spell and succumbed to her charms – only to realise later that they had sold out their country.
Now, Won Jeong Hwa, 34, will go on trial in South Korea this week for spying for her native North Korea for the past five years by sleeping with military officers.
Her alleged mission was to obtain classified information on key military installations as well as important North Korean defectors. If convicted of treason, she may face the death penalty.
It is a remarkable fall from grace for a woman once held up as a model defector who toured military bases in South Korea to denounce the evils in the communist North.
Won had allegedly slipped through security checks and gained asylum in the South seven years ago, becoming one of about 14,000 North Koreans who have resettled in the South since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
Back in the North, she was a convicted thief who feared execution after being caught stealing several tonnes of zinc, The Times of London reported, citing senior prosecutor Kim Kyeong Su.
Won fled to China but eventually returned home to become a spy in 1998. Her first assignment was to identify and send back home – to certain imprisonment or death – fellow North Koreans in China who were trying to defect to the South.
So when she was given the job of delivering anticommunist lectures at military bases after a lengthy screening process by the South Korean authorities, it was a heaven-sent opportunity for her to carry out her alleged mission. For 18 months, she gave 52 lectures to soldiers, using North Korean propaganda videos as her tool.
She made a name for herself as a North Korea expert within the military circles and was even appointed a lecturer on national security at army bases. She used her access to the military bases to befriend and seduce military officers in an attempt to extract classified information from them.
According to investigators cited by Korea Times, she maintained romantic relations with three to four officers. She lived together with army first lieutenant Hwang, 26, who has also been arrested.
Won is alleged to have passed to the North information about the location of military installations, lists of North Korean defectors and even 100 namecards of South Korean military officers.
She visited China 14 times over the past five years to report to and receive instructions from her North Korean spymasters, the prosecutors said.
Her handlers provided her with equipment worth US$60,000 (S$85,000), including poisoned needles with which to assassinate intelligence agents from South Korea, although this plan was never put into effect, said The Times.
The prosecutors also claimed that Won had married a South Korean factory worker back in China while she was on the run for theft. She and her husband divorced immediately after her ‘defection’ to the South.
She was finally arrested in July along with her foster father, a 63-year-old named only as Mr Kim, who was suspected of abetting her espionage. He is said to be a relative of Mr Kim Young Nam, chairman of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly, Korea Times reported.
It cited the authorities as saying Won received operational funds from her foster father, who went to China in 1999 and came to Seoul as a defector in late 2006 through Cambodia.
The spy case, only the second such case in a decade, comes as ties between the two Koreas chill, following a decade of detente. Pyongyang has been angered by conservative South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s pledge to stop unconditional aid since he took office in February.
‘The sunshine policy of engaging the North over the past 10 years may have compromised part of our security apparatus,’ said Professor Kim Tae Woo, a senior research fellow with the Korea Institute for Defence Analyses. ‘Our government needs to improve the operations of the military and intelligence departments to enhance our guard against the threat from North Korea.’
Defence Minister Lee Sang Hee said the case was a reminder of ‘Pyongyang’s unwavering efforts to penetrate our society’.
An official from the Defence Security Command (DSC) told The Sunday Times that the number of espionage arrests has been relatively unchanged over the years, but different administrations may have chosen to deal with them differently.
About 4,500 North Korean spies had been caught over the past 60 years, according to the DSC.
The latest arrest, besides attracting high-profile publicity, has prompted the Unification Ministry to consider tightening the system for screening potential defectors.