In recent weeks South Korean media has been awash with stories concerning an explosive story; The case of Lee Seok-Gi. The lawmaker has been accused of conspiracy to commit armed rebellion and has labelled a 'jongpuk' (종북 - a derogatory term for a North Korean sympathiser/apologist). The story has so many twists and turns it should be fiction and will inevitably be turned into a gripping movie at some point. In the meantime the bombshell story highlights a very real concern that has plagued the South Korean authorities for decades, the anxiety of a pro-North Korea fifth column operating secretly undetected in South Korea.
Lee Seok-Gi is reportedly a core member in a clandestine gang named the 'Revolutionary Organisation of the People'. The underground group has between 130-200 members who would assist in an invasion attempt made by North Korean forces. Lee Seok-Gi, in his prominent position as a lawmaker, had great access to a wealth of information that would be very desirable to the North Korean army. It has been discovered that he was viewing documents outside of his official remits and his gang of rebels conspired to destroy telecommunication facilities and help disrupt South Korean infrastructure to aid a North Korean advance on Seoul. Should an attack happen the proposed fifth column activities would of severely hindered the South Korean efforts to rebuff any attack.
Lee Seok-Gi has courted controversy before as a lawmaker having famously denounced the official national anthem of South Korea and unconvincingly tried to defend against the accusations that he was pro-North Korean. He was also been pardoned twice by a former South Korean President, Roh Moo-Hyun (now deceased), who himself was at the centre of a major news story in recent months about his role in abetting North Korea over the NLL (Northern Limit Line) issue.
The National Intelligence Service (NIS) in Korea cracked open the case with the aid of an informant who ran a billiards hall in the city of Suwon, south of the capital Seoul. To add spice to the story the Intelligence service themselves are also embroiled in their own scandal. The more forgiving commentators about this underground pro-North Korean group have cast aspersions that the case is being used by the NIS as a distraction from all the bad press they are receiving. The organisation has been implicated in trying to swing votes in the most recent election in favour of the eventual winner, Park Guen-Hye. The whole saga of the Lee Seok-Gi case has been conducted very publicly and you don't have to be a cynic to recognise that the case has helped to deflect attention away from the flak they have received over improper behaviour.
The entire debacle however is an alluring media story, difficult to ignore. Full of intrigue and traitorous villainy with an under-pressure NIS spilling out details for citizens to lap up and revel in. It does however illustrate a real issue of security in Korea and gives ample evidence to support the theory that pro-North Korean rings are operating inside South Korea. How successful or influential they are remains a big doubt but certain factors play in favour of each side being able to infiltrate one another's country as realistically it is unlikely to be just one-way traffic.
Firstly, geographically neither is an impenetrable fortress. While the DMZ makes it nearly impossible to cross the border via foot, although famously many tunnels have been constructed to bypass the DMZ, an alternative is to cross the divide by water which is far more difficult to patrol. A recent news story of a 46 year old man who swam across the maritime border in order to defect highlights that crossing is not impossible or particularly herculean. Historically North Korea has also made use of submarines to bypass the border with numerous incidents being on record. Coupled with this is the simple fact that both nations are Korean. While over decades ruptures between the two have developed in culture, language and reportedly even physical build these differences are clearly not impossible to disguise. For example even if the Korean language used in the South has developed and incorporated words from Western culture it is not such a uphill task to study a DVD of a recent South Korean drama and pick up on the traits, terms and foibles of a South Korean citizen. Therefore sending spies or fostering a fifth column on enemy shores is in theory a very do-able act if either nation desires it. The rooting out and uncovering of such groups demonstrated in the Lee Seok-Gi case is a routine operation for the security forces in South Korea yet panic can set in about the groups that remain undetected, the unseen menace. History can attest to the many incidents of North Korean infiltration and this case once again highlights South Korea's constant battle to protect itself and the dangers it faces.
While this case is unfolding it is also notable that the current Korean President has not overblown the discovery. Park Geun-hye, the recently elected President, has won plaudits domestically for the way she has handled her politically peculiar North Korean brethren and their complicated practice of foreign policy. Unlike her predecessor who took a harsh line on North Korea she has put value in building "trust" between the pair. Trust is of course delicate and can easily turn sour. This episode will continue to be played out publicly and attract a lot of media attention as other news of North Korean exploits are woven into the story. The success of the Kaesong re-opening will be offset by the potentially disappointing news that the North Korea are acting in defiance of international agreements and booting up the Yongbyon nuclear facility once again. The South Korean public have once again been reminded of the threat that lays on their doorstep, or perhaps better described as they have gotten a peak of what is under the door mat. Remarkably after decades of conflict they have become accustomed to living in a dangerous uncertain world yet there is no denying that this sensational story will continue to dominate the headlines as thankfully for the NIS, scandals sell.