In 2001, following the 9/11 terrorist attack, a term used by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency entered common currency.
Throughout the 1980s, the Mujahideen, that loose conglomeration of Afghan tribal forces and international Muslim groups fighting against Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan, were supplied and supported by the CIA. Following the Soviet retreat, elements inside the Mujahideen morphed into militant Islamic extremists: The Taliban and al-Qaida.
There was shocked dismay in the United States when it was discovered that the men who had launched the 9/11 attacks had been birthed in the Mujahideen. The term the CIA used to describe this situation was “blowback:” The unintended consequence of an operation, in which a weapon or asset is turned against its sponsors.
Now, behind an unmarked door in an unmarked building in darkest Pyongyang, a group of shadowy individuals may be pondering this same term.
For six decades, Pyongyang has waged an espionage campaign against Seoul. Standout incidents include the attempted 1968 special forces assassination of President Park Chung-hee; the 1980 hit on the South Korean Cabinet, which, while visiting Rangoon, was blown up by North Korean operatives; and the 1984 bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 by North Korean agents.
But these are just the standouts, the most spectacular and murderous operations; Pyongyang also sponsored a range of less kinetic moves aimed at fermenting revolution. Amid the pro-democracy protests against the Chun Doo-hwan regime in the 1980s, one man carrying out this work in the South was Kim Young-hwan.
An ardent believer in Kim Il-sung’s “juche” ideology, Kim established underground networks and distributed subversive literature. He was arrested and imprisoned but his quality had been spotted. He was later conveyed to North Korea by submarine for training, and met ``The Great Leader” himself.
As recent news reports make clear, Kim is today deploying his experience against his former sponsors. His recanting of his youthful ideology and his activities in China suggest that he possesses a gift that is rare in politics: Integrity.
This sets him apart from many of his former fellow travelers in South Korea. Today, some persons who courageously struggled against the South’s military governments of the 1980s appear still to support the North.
This is bizarre.
Seoul’s authoritarian governments now lie in the dustbin of history; the chances of another military coup are (I believe) close to zero. While South Korean society today certainly has faults, it offers the average citizen political suffrage, judicial protection and personal freedoms including opportunities to travel, to educate him or herself and to pursue prosperity ― all without fearing a knock on the door at midnight.
None of these are available to the average North Korean ― who, moreover, lacks even that most basic right, a guaranteed calorific intake.
Moreover, the authoritarian government in South Korea was never as successfully (I use the adjective loosely) oppressive as was that in the North. The student protests which spearheaded the democratization movement in the South were (and are) unthinkable north of the DMZ.
Today’s two Koreas exemplify the “Kirkpatrick Doctrine” (named after one of the chief thinkers of the Reagan administration): That however odious right-wing, authoritarian regimes may be, they are less stable, and therefore more susceptible to internal and external demands for change, than are totalitarian regimes.
Given all this, why do members of the protest generation ― including some who are now active in mainstream politics ― find it so difficult to believe that a North Korean submarine could sink a South Korean ship? Why do they refuse to discuss North Korean human rights abuses? Why do they dub North Korean defectors “traitors?” Etc., etc., etc.
I can only assume they feel a strong emotive attachment to an outdated ideology.
This is what makes Kim refreshing. In switching his gun-sights from South to North, he has seen what other leftists seem blind to. He has looked beyond ideology and focused on something far plainer: right and wrong.
Today, there are few good reasons to bring radical change to South Korean governance. There are many good reasons to attempt to do the same to North Korean governance.
At a meeting with Seoul-based foreign correspondents, Kim dropped a bombshell. The reason for his arrest in China, he said, was that he was meeting pro-democracy activists “who were active inside North Korea.” This is the first credible evidence of a nascent movement inside that state.
Moreover, the reason for his harsh handling by Chinese authorities, he continued, was they were aware of how effective he was at anti-government activities – after all, he had cut his revolutionary teeth in South Korea.
So if Kim’s case is giving some men in a shady directorate in Pyongyang the vapors ― good. Welcome to the world of blowback.
While Kim may not be as high-profile a saboteur as, say Kim Shin-jo ― the only survivor of the 1968 attack on the Blue House ― he may be more dangerous. The days for commando raids are over, but North Korea’s China border is porous. With North Koreans outside Pyongyang now running a market economy and importing all manner of outside products and (crucially) media, the time is ripe for anti-regime activities.
With interested governments apparently unwilling to take the risk of irking, pressuring or destabilizing North Korea, it is left to individuals to prosecute these activities.
To Kim Young-hwan: I salute you and wish you God speed in your future endeavors.
Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and author. His latest work, “Scorched Earth, Black Snow,” was published in London in June. Reach him at email@example.com.