Once their espionage cases are resolved, some former North Korean spies find that life in the South can be pretty good. They write books, land television gigs, work for think tanks and in general benefit from their new home’s fascination with their old homeland.
Won Jeong-hwa is not one of those spies.
A year after finishing a five-year espionage sentence for using sex to obtain military secrets and plotting to assassinate intelligence officers, Won is a 40-year-old single mother eking out a living on an US$800 monthly government subsidy.
Her espionage work is not taken seriously enough in South Korea for her to cash in on her past, yet she’s also too notorious to find an ordinary job. She says she has been fired from several waitressing and cleaning jobs after employers learned about her past, which she had attempted to conceal.
“I’ve thought about killing myself many times,” Won said in an interview at her small apartment in Gunpo, just south of Seoul.
She has two big strikes against her. There are allegations that she was merely a low-level informant whose deeds were inflated by South Korean officials eager to make Pyongyang look bad, and by reporters digging for a sexy story. Additionally, the sexual nature of her crimes carries a stigma in this conservative country.
Won was imprisoned in 2008 after a court ruled that she posed as an ordinary North Korean defector, then used sex to extract secrets from South Korean military officers. The media began calling her “North Korea’s Mata Hari” in reference to an exotic dancer from the Netherlands who used sex to obtain military secrets during the first world war.
North Korea accused South Korea of cooking up a spy scandal to tarnish Pyongyang’s image and said Won was a criminal.
After Won was released, she was a popular guest on TV talk shows where she spoke about her harsh, elite spy training. She said she disobeyed Pyongyang’s orders to assassinate two South Korean army intelligence officers with poison.
She also talked about how she fell in love with a junior army officer – the “man of my life.” He was later imprisoned for passing her secrets including a list of North Korean defectors even after learning she was a spy.
The attention caused South Korean media to revisit her case. Some reporters questioned the value of her espionage work, and raised suspicions based on testimony by North Korean defectors who said they knew Won and her family members in the North.
Won’s 2008 court verdict said she was trained at a special operations unit in Pyongyang and was a daughter of an agent killed on a spy mission in South Korea in 1974.
But Won’s stepfather, Kim Dong-soon, who came to South Korea in 2007, said in an interview that Won’s biological father was an ordinary labourer who died of a heart attack, and that Won was a high school dropout who had nothing to do with special operations forces. Won denies Kim’s allegations.
In the verdict and in interviews, it was said that North Korea first sent Won to South Korea in 2001 to take photos of the exteriors of US military installations and to collect South Korean newspaper editorials about North Korea. People dubious of Won’s elite status consider that low-level spy work.
Some defectors who met Won before her 2008 arrest say she was often incoherent and unprofessional and could not have been a highly trained spy.
“I believe that she was exploited as an informant. ... She wasn’t even worth being called a spy,” said Kim Yong-hwa, a defector-turned-activist.
He said he once rejected Won’s request to meet with a high-profile North Korean defector because she rambled too much.
A key debunker of Won’s espionage record is Won herself, who spoke to The Associated Press in a series of interviews between April and this week. She has said in media interviews that she was pressured by prosecutors to provide false testimony, particularly about her use of sex in spy work.
The trial verdict and an investigation by prosecutors said she slept with numerous men, including South Korean officers and her boss at an agency where she worked. Won said she used sex as a spying tool only once, to steal personnel management-related documents from an army major’s home computer.
She said she couldn’t resist pressure by prosecutors who gave her alcohol and urged her to confess during questioning. They “manufactured [the story of] my relations with men,” she said. “I’m not a Mata Hari.”
Prosecutors have dismissed Won’s claims.
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South Korea has a history of forgiving former spies and assassins, though they are still sometimes ostracised. Their careers in the media often depend on whether they were involved in high-profile cases that captured global attention, and whether they followed Seoul’s propaganda line against the North.
Won said a prosecutor told her during her questioning that she could make a new start in the South by following in the footsteps of Kim Hyon-hui, a North Korean agent sentenced to death for bombing a South Korean jet in 1987, killing all 115 passengers aboard.
Kim was later pardoned and wrote a best-selling autobiography. She often appears on TV to speak critically of North Korea.
Several other North Koreans who once attacked the South now embrace it. One of the 31 North Korean commandos who launched a brazen mission to assassinate South Korea’s president in 1968 is now a Christian pastor who lectures about the North.
A North Korean crew member of a submarine that ran aground in the South, and who was captured alive after a massive manhunt that left 25 other comrades dead or missing, is a lecturer for the South Korean navy.
A spy arrested after a deadly shootout in 1995 works for a think tank run by the South’s spy agency and wrote a book about his mission.
Won, on the other hand, feels trapped. No South Korean TV station wants her as an expert because of reports that she may not have been an elite spy. Finding work unrelated to her past is also impossible, she said, because no one wants to hire an unskilled woman with a criminal espionage record.
One of the jobs she gained and quickly lost was at a noodle restaurant. She said a former colleague later told her the boss had been worried she would poison the food.
The army officer Won fell in love with has been released, but they are no longer in touch. Nor is the father of her 12-year-old daughter in the picture: she said he is a South Korean businessman she met in China, where she had been assigned to find and repatriate North Korean defectors before she was sent to South Korea.
Won said the government assistance she gets was not enough for her to even buy a school uniform for her daughter. A centre that helps female ex-inmates gave one to her.
Many defectors shun her. She said her neighbours once asked that she move, and that her daughter’s friends have been told by their parents to stay away from the girl.
“I’ve told my daughter she should go to an orphanage because she’d be happier living there,” Won said, sobbing. “I want to move to a country where no one knows me.”