MINBYUN (Lawyers for a Democratic Society) is in the news again. This time, it is embroiled in a controversy concerning its role in the Ningbo 12 defection case. Chosun Ilbo and the Liberty Korea Post have recently reported MINBYUN’s questionable activities via Heo Kang-il’s statements. Heo has been observing the stories developing around Yoon Mi-hyang and her husband Kim Sam-seok and has felt compelled to expose the truth about them.
Many allegations of corruption have surfaced, spurred on by Lee Yong-su Halmoni’s press conference accusing Yoon, the former chair of JeongDaeHyeop, of corruption. JeongDaeHyeop is a non-profit entity dedicated to the well-being of the former comfort women as well as a movement to seek justice for the women who had suffered unspeakable abuse under the imperial Japanese army during the Japanese colonial era.
At age ninety-two, Lee Halmoni is one of the eighteen women remaining out of the hundreds of thousand women who had been dispatched to war fronts to serve the Japanese soldiers during World War II.
Lee Halmoni has devoted her life to the resolution of the comfort women case, which has been mired in turmoil because of the unsatisfactory repent and apology from the Japanese government officials. More than anything, she does not want a repeat of the horror she had experienced and feels duty-bound to educate the public about the catastrophe.
In a statement at her press conference on May 7th, she charged that Yoon and JeongDaehyeop were promoting hatred rather than awareness and that she would not attend the weekly protest in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul any longer. Further, Lee Halmoni spoke of the misuse of funds that the organization has been collecting over the years. “Where are they spending the money collected from the girls who have shown up at the rallies all these years?”
Lee Halmoni does not feel that the money they have raised from the girls and the big contributors has gone to the right places.
Officials from the JeongDaeHyeop organization held a press conference of their own and explained that all the money was accounted for and refuted Lee Halmoni. Ms. Yoon made a statement on her Facebook that Lee Halmoni’s memories were fading. Yoon even alluded to a telephone conversation with Lee Halmoni about thirty years ago, in which Lee Halmoni had “confessed” that she was not a real comfort woman. One of the JeongDaeHyeop officials stated during the press conference that they felt degraded that the press would be asking so many questions about where the money went. In the end, they said they would request an examination by independent auditors.
Questions arose as to whether they have ever been audited during the thirty years of existence. They have not. More questions arose—aren’t non-profit organizations required to be audited annually?
As it turned out, one of the places the JeongDaeHyeop had acquired was the Anseong vacation home for about 800,000 dollars donated by Hyundai Heavy Industries. This property was built as a vacation resort for comfort women, a place where they could relax, and so on. Oddly, Lee Halmoni only learned about the place on television.
Another person took notice of the Anseong vacation home—Heo Kang-il. He contacted Chosun Ilbo and revealed that he and three Ningbo women had been there. He said that people from MINBYUN and JeongDaeHyeop were at the Anseong property and asked them to return to North Korea. He also released the content of the text messages with the MINBYUN lawyer Jang Kyung-wook via Telegram. The text messages leave no doubt as to what Jang wanted Heo to do.
MINBYUN refuted Heo and issued its official position, denying its attempt to send the Ningbo12 women back to North Korea.
On May 22, MINBYUN’s chairman Kim Cheol-ho posted the following statement:
Concerning the case of “North Korean overseas restaurant workers and suspicion of planned defection" (April 2016), MINBYUN had formed a task force immediately following the incident. MINBYUN deemed that the incident represented a case of institutional abuse of power and severe violation of individual rights. The task force has petitioned for: information release; removal of the restraining order [from the women]; appeal to the National Human Rights Commission; criminal complaints against the NIS; and then carried out the outreach effort in the international community.
Here are my comments regarding the task force’s activities and recent press reports.
First of all, MINBYUN has never given money or living expenses to the related parties. However, we confirmed that the members of the task force have given them money as an individual, or have collected funds from other individuals to provide financial assistance to the women and the restaurant manager on several occasions as a result of their pleadings for help. We confirmed that [the task force] never asked the [defectors] to return to North Korea or suggested it during the process. Please refer to the detailed account as attached herewith.
I express my regret about the press reporting based only on [Heo Kang-il’s] side of the story and wish that [the press] release reports based on objective, confirmed facts, in the future. The end.
Most likely, Chairman Kim Cheol-ho was not aware of the activities the task force was involved in toto. Nor was he aware of their pro-North Korea leanings. Chairman Kim accuses the press of writing stories based only on Heo’s point of view and neglects to tell the fact that Heo had felt threatened enough to apply for asylum in a third country.
Studying the following text exchanges between Heo and a person named KimXX introduced to Heo by the MINBYUN task force, KimXX was more concerned about the "love of Suryong” than “defectors’ individual rights” as suggested by the MINBYUN chairman.
Heo (now in exile in a third country) has informed Liberty Korea Post the content of the Telegram messages to and from KimXX, as following (abbreviated):
KimXX: The US imperialists are in a tough spot now, as the situation shows… Regardless of what the US imperialists want, the declaration of the end of the war is soon coming.
Heo: I wish our fatherland unifies soon.
KimXX: Be brave, trust MINBYUN, and act boldly. If you work with those in the unification
movement freely within the law, you will
become Heo-dongmu [comrade Heo],
sure to be loved by the suryong-nim.[great
Heo: Thank you.
KimXX: Some of us are getting ready to
go to [Pyongyang] for the 9.9 Day celebration [day of the foundation of the republic]
(appears possible as of now..), and please
help us contact the women’s family.
We are still in a preliminary stage, but we
plan to request interviews with [the women's]
Heo: Yes, I see.
KimXX: That’s about it today. Goodbye.
Throughout this exchange and others, Heo told Liberty Korea Post that he was appalled that a South Korean lawyer would freely banter about words like “US imperialists,” "suryong-nim,” and “Heo-dongmu." Instead of feeling a familiarity with these North Korean lexica, he felt afraid for his safety.
The MINBYUN task force issued the following position regarding the Ningbo12 matter and told a completely different story:
With regard to the Chosun Ilbo article dated May 21, 2020, our position is as following:
In August 2016, four months after the 12 women workers from Ryukyung restaurant in Ningbo entered South Korea, Heo Kang-il came to MINBYUN office and requested a meeting with the task force. Over two meetings, Heo spoke about the difficulties with respect to the circumstances concerning their arrival and financial conditions. Subsequently, due to a misunderstanding about a media report regarding the circumstances of their arrival [in South Korea], we lost contact with Heo.
About March 2018, Heo contacted us again, sometime before his interview with JTBC (“Spotlight” program by Lee Kyu-yeon) in May. A JTBC reporter-in-charge suggested that we should meet with the women who were bound to have had a difficult time during the two years of living in South Korea, and we met with four women. While we searched for ways for the women to secure a stable life, we met with individuals from an organization called “Supporters of Prisoners of Conscience 양심수후원회.” They were working with a civic organization dealing with “suspicion of government-planned defection from North Korea.” We met with Mr. Kim Sam-seok at that time. We arranged a dinner together with former comfort woman Kil Won-ok Halmoni who was living at the Mapo vacation home for comfort women. She happened to be from Pyongyang, and we thought dinner with the restaurant workers from North Korea would have been pleasant. On November 17, 2018, three women, Heo Kang-il, four MINBYUN task force members, three JeongDaeHyeop members, one member from the Citizen Society Committee, and Kim Sam-seok. It was just an occasion for a comfortable dinner, and we naturally met with Yoon Mi-hyang (former Chair of JeongDaeHyeop) and her husband, Kim Sam-seok.
After the dinner meeting, Kim Sam-seok and another member of The Supporters of Prisoners of Conscience sent contributions to attorney Jang Kyung-wook via individual accounts, two and three times, respectively. Jang, in turn, transferred the money to Heo and the women restaurant workers. That was all. Jang individually has sent additional money to Heo and the women because of their financial difficulties on several occasions. MINBYUN has provided them only legal support, never any amount of money. Other than that, we have no relationship with JeongDaeHyeop. Also, MINBYUN task force lawyers have never accompanied them to Anseong vacation home. The task force members never asked them or urged the [defectors] to return to North Korea.
The Chosun Ilbo article mostly uses Heo’s story. Heo had acted as an informant for the NIS per his media interview. As the restaurant manager, he played a crucial role in abiding by the NIS request to arrive in [South Korea] as a group. Around October 2019, was sued for coercion, arrest-kidnapping. When Heo came to MINBYUN in August 2016, he completely deceived us and caused confusion. As the most responsible person in this incident, he exiled himself overseas and repeated irresponsible statements via media.
It has been four years since the North Korean overseas restaurant defection, but the truth has not been found. The legal complaint file around May 2018 has not progressed other than the investigation of the complainant. The dinner at the Mapo vacation home was nothing but an occasion to spend a relaxing time together with Kil Halmoni. The task force and the lawyers aimed to seek the truth about the group defection, and they had no reason to ask them to return to North Korea or urge them to do so. We solemnly warn about the fabrication of false facts and the malicious use of the incident whose truth needs enlightenment.
The task force's position paper denies any involvement in suggesting Heo and Ningbo women return to North Korea. They also have drawn a line between JeongDaeHyeop and themselves. They say they are only interested in the truth. However, the facts suggest that they are nowhere near the truth. The unbending truth is that the Ningbo 12 women and Heo do not want to return to North Korea.