This story originally appeared on The Shorrock Files on Jan. 18, 2023. It is shared here with permission.

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In scenes reminiscent of South Korea’s authoritarian past, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service – the successor to the once-dreaded KCIA – raided the headquarters of the country’s second-largest and most militant labor federation on Wednesday morning.

Korean and foreign press services reported that the NIS and the National Policy Agency stormed the offices of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and the KCTU-affiliated Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union in Seoul. They are being charged with violating the anti-communist National Security Law by receiving orders from North Korea, possibly as spies, according to Kiji Noh, a U.S. journalist and peace activist who closely follows South Korean politics.

In a related action just south of the Korean mainland, South Korea’s security forces also raided a “peace shelter” on Jeju Island that is dedicated to remembering the Sewol, a passenger ferry that capsized off the coast of southern Korea in April 2014 while en route to Jeju. That catastrophe killed nearly 300 passengers, mostly high school students, and was one of the incidents that led to the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye in 2016. Activists at the shelter are also suspected of violating the National Security Law.

The Sewol just after it was raised from the depths, in the Port of Mokpo, May 2017. Photo by Tim Shorrock.

The raids are the latest actions against civil society organizations by the right-wing government of Yoon Suk-yeol. He was elected by a slim margin last year to succeed President Moon Jae-in, a former dissident during the military dictatorships of Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan. Park and Chun frequently used the National Security Law, a draconian measure first adopted during the fascist rule of Syngman Rhee, to jail and sometimes execute dissidents and opposition figures.

Yoon, like his predecessors, is now using the NSL “as a weapon to intimidate and silence opposition” to his government, Noh said in an interview with The Shorrock Files.

“President Yoon is  facing demands to resign for his oppressive labor policies, his coordination and facilitation of Japanese remilitarization, his support of US weaponization of South Korea against China, as well as corruption,” said Noh. “There have been 23 mass protests against the Yoon administration, demanding that it step down, as well as mass labor strikes.” His raids are “a regression to the horrific tactics of past military dictatorships that used the NSL to budgeon dissent.”

Scenes of the raid were broadcast on Korean television and streamed live by the KCTU on YouTube.

Here’s how the raids were reported by the center-right Korea Joongang Daily:

The spy agency and police raided the headquarters of a militant labor umbrella organization and three other locations Wednesday to investigate possible violations of the National Security Act.
 
According to the National Intelligence Service (NIS) and National Police Agency, the NIS obtained a search and seizure warrant from a court to investigate alleged violations of South Korea’s main anti-communist law by officials of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU).
 
Members of the KCTU tried to physically stop the raid of the group’s head office in Jung District, central Seoul by blocking the raiding party around 10 a.m.

Scuffles broke out between the investigators and KCTU members, who insisted that the organization’s lawyers should be present during the raid. Investigators entered the headquarters after about an hour.

The KCTU livestreamed the raid through its YouTube account.

The NIS and police also raided the headquarters of the KCTU-affiliated Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union in Yeongdeungpo District, western Seoul.

Outside Seoul, the NIS also raided a so-called “peace shelter” on Jeju Island dedicated to the Sewol passenger ferry, which capsized off the coast on Jindo, South Jeolla in April 2014 while en route to Jeju, killing 299 passengers.

The raid in Jeju was intended to seize documents connected to alleged violations of the National Security Act by a man who currently lives at the shelter.

The man, who was not identified by name, is also the director of the Jeju Sewol Memory Hall, which is located next to the shelter. Police said the man was previously active in the KCTU’s metalworkers’ union.

The shelter offers accommodation to dismissed workers involved in long-term legal battles with former employers, families of victims of manmade disasters, and those who previously suffered acts of state-sponsored violence.

The newspaper described the National Security Law as a holdover from the past.

Passed in 1948, the National Security Act proscribes “any anticipated activities compromising the safety of the State” and “endangering the existence and security of the State or democratic fundamental order” — essentially banning behavior or speech that expresses support for the North Korean regime or communism or advocates the overthrow of the South Korean government.
 
The law was famously abused by authoritarian governments in the past, but attempts to repeal it have failed.

The law has been used in modern times to prosecute actual cases of sedition.
 
In 2013, the law was invoked by the NIS to arrest and convict Lee Seok-ki, a lawmaker from the minor liberal Unified Progressive Party, for plotting a rebellion in the event of war between the Koreas. 

That 2013 action by the NIS came as a shock to me because I had just spent a week in Seoul as a guest of the Unified Progressive Party, which had sponsored an “International Peace Symposium to Establish a Peace Treaty on the Korean Peninsula.” I spoke at the conference and wrote about my 2013 visit here.

In a report from Seoul today, Aljazeera added details about Yoon’s use of the National Security Law.

Some [KCTU] members were suspected of having “ties with North Korea”, the spy agency said…

“We and the national police agency have been carrying out our own investigation into the suspects’ alleged ties with North Korea for several years,” an official from the spy agency told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

“Based on the evidence obtained in the process, we judged that a compulsory investigation was necessary, and we went ahead with the raid after the court issued a search and seizure warrant,” the source said.

South Korea remains officially at war with North Korea, and under a controversial and archaic National Security Act, possession of publications or other materials produced in the North can be a criminal offence. Local media reported that the raids were prompted by alleged violations of the security act.

Peoples Dispatch, an international media project that follows citizen movements around the world, added more detail on the response to the raids in Korea.

As per reports, the NIS procured a search and seizure warrant from the court against the KCTU based on alleged charges of violating the controversial National Security Act of 1948. NIS officials reportedly stated that the search came after years of “internal investigations into … alleged links to North Korea,” but refused to divulge any further information.

Four people were the prime targets of the raid. These include a senior KCTU leader, one official each from its affiliates, the Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union and the Korean Metal Workers’ Union, and a union organizer and anti-war activist from Jeju Island.

Apart from the trade union’s headquarters in Seoul, raids were carried out at multiple locations including at the homes of the accused union leaders. At its Seoul headquarters, KCTU officials confronted the investigators, demanding that the search be conducted in the presence of a lawyer, but the NIS and the police investigators reportedly pushed their way into the office.

The confrontation lasted more than three hours before the search could proceed. The KCTU live-streamed the confrontation and parts of the raids on YouTube showing investigators forcing their way into the office. KCTU officials also stated that IDs were taken along with photographs of the people present at the headquarters without their permission.

In a press conference held in the afternoon, shortly after the raid started, Han Sang-jin, a spokesperson of the KCTU, stated that the raid appeared to be an attempt to forcibly link the ongoing persecution of trade unionists to an alleged North-Korean “spy ring.” 

The KCTU was organized along industrial lines during South Korea’s democratization movement of the late 1980s. Since its formation, it has had a shaky relationship with the AFL-CIO, which during the Park and Chun dictatorships worked only with the pro-government Federation of Korean Trade Unions (I described that sordid relationship in Labor’s Cold War, an investigation I conducted for The Nation into the AFL-CIO’s Cold War institutes in Latin America and Asia). The FKTU has since shed its ties to Korean intelligence and now operates as a normal trade union federation.

The KCTU relationship with the AFL-CIO became especially contentious during the negotiations over the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), which was ratified in 2012. The federation, with the U.S. government-funded Solidarity Center and the NGO Public Citizen, opposed KORUS on the grounds that the Gaesong Industrial Zone, a project of North and South Korea that was closed in 2016, was using “slave labor” and funding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

The KCTU, which also opposed KORUS, supported Gaesong as the only institution that allowed North and South Koreans to work together and an important step towards peace. Like former President Moon, the KCTU also supported engagement with North Korea and has sponsored soccer matches and other events with its labor counterparts in the DPRK.

The AFL-CIO press office did not respond to an email seeking comment on the Yoon government’s raid on the KCTU. On the charges directed against the federation, Kiji Noh said he “would just point out the absurdity: You don’t need North Korea to tell a union to strike, anymore than Samsung Corporation needs orders from the U.S. to stiff wages.”

Update:

Hankyoreh, South Korea’s progressive daily newspaper added further details on January 19th.

The move comes soon after authorities announced an investigation into the alleged formation of anti-state groups by activists and others in South Gyeongsang Province and Jeju Island. Critics say the spy agency’s full-scale investigation into the KCTU is part of a ramp up by the Yoon government in investigations into trumped up national security breaches and communist-sympathizing.

And in an editorial, the newspaper noted that South Korea’s intelligence service “has a history of numerous episodes involving false espionage allegations.”

Observers in civil society are saying the investigation is a show of force meant to keep national security investigation authority in NIS hands.

“We have to wonder if this was not a case of making a show of raiding KCTU and putting on a media spectacle as part of a plan to regain national security investigation authority, the transfer of which is central to NIS reforms,” said the National Intelligence Service Watchdog Network — an organization with members including MINBYUN-Lawyers for a Democratic Society, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, and the Catholic Human Rights Committee — in a statement Wednesday.

Hankyoreh concluded with this:

This sort of regressive activity undoes the NIS reforms achieved by the Moon Jae-in administration. The NIS has a history of numerous episodes involving false espionage allegations; not all that long ago, it forged evidence during the Park Geun-hye administration to falsely accuse Seoul metropolitan government employee Yu Woo-sung of spying.Reforming the NIS is something that our era demands of us as a way of breaking the vicious cycle of fraudulent, human rights-violating investigation and interference in domestic politics.

Tim Shorrock

Tim Shorrock is a Washington-based journalist who spent part of his youth in South Korea and has been writing about North and South Korea since the late 1970s. He just returned from a two month stay in Gwangju, South Korea, where during the Korean president campaign he interviewed South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In. He writes about US-Korea relations for The Nation and the Korea Center for Investigative Reporting.