ICAS Special Contribution

No. 2003-0609-DxK

The South Korean Spy Chief Who Paved the Way for Thaw With North

Don Kirk

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

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Biographic Sketch & Links: Don Kirk

[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge the special contribution with written permission to ICAS of Don Kirk. This article originally appeared in International Herald Tribune January 31, 2001. sjk]

The South Korean Spy Chief Who Paved the Way for Thaw With North

Don Kirk

SEOUL The historic meeting in June that brought the North and South Korean leaders together for the first time would not have happened without the painstaking advance work of the South Korean intelligence chief.

Lim Dong Won, director-general of the National Intelligence Service, secretly engineered that meeting and continues to manage the tortuous process of rapprochement with the North. He is indisputably the point man for President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine" policy of reconciliation.

"D.J. is a visionary," said Pak Kie Joon, a senior analyst at the government-supported Research Institute for International Affairs, referring to President Kim by the initials by which he is widely known. "Lim Dong Won provides the technical ways to get what D.J. wants."

How Mr. Lim - a former general with strong anti-Communist views - came to play such a role in North-South relations constitutes one of the great dramas of Korean history. On the one hand, he has achieved what no one before him could: a real thawing of the North-South freeze. On the other, he is accused by hard-liners of playing into the hands of a hostile regime.

In little more than a year as intelligence chief, Mr. Lim established at least three main avenues of communication with North Korea that led to the summit talks in June:

  • He established a liaison office in the demilitarized zone that enables South Korean intelligence officials to telephone and fax their North Korean contacts directly from their barricaded headquarters south of Seoul.

  • At Mr. Lim's behest, one of his top deputies, Kim Bo Hyun, opened a dialogue with North Korean officials in Beijing while negotiating for the June summit talks.

  • While secretly visiting Pyongyang in May to arrange the June summit talks, Mr. Lim formed an enduring "special relationship" with Kim Yong Sun, who hides his intelligence role under the cover of head of North Korea's "Asia-Pacific Peace Committee" and secretary of the Workers' Party.

But Mr. Lim was criticized at home for receiving Kim Yong Sun, the North's chief spymaster, in September and taking him on a widely publicized tour of the South. He now fears that his foes will accuse him of selling out and seek to punish him - either violently or with a show trial - when President Kim steps down in 2003.

"Lim Dong Won is the main architect of the inter-Korean summit," said Choi Won Ki, co author, with Chung Chang Hyun, of a book, Inter-Korean Summit: 600 Days.; But how much longer he can direct negotiations with the North is far from clear.

The marriage between the dreams of Kim Dae Jung and the expertise of Lim Dong Won evolved in the long years before Mr. Kim's electoral victory in December 1997, during the height of South Korea's economic crisis.

While Mr. Kim, the first opposition leader to be elected president of the country, generally turned to people from his native Cholla region in the southwest for aid and advice, he found Mr. Lim perfectly suited his interests. Unlike virtually all other senior military people, he had come to adopt a "liberal" outlook toward the North.

The son of a Christian pastor who was executed by North Koreans during the Korean War, Mr. Lim attended the Korea Military Academy after he settled down in the South.

His hard line began to shift when he was forced to retire in 1980 as Chun Doo Hwan, the general who seized power after the assassination of Park Chung Hee in October 1979, consolidated his power with political cronies.

While Mr. Chun was putting Kim Dae Jung on trial for treason in connection with the bloody revolt in Kwangju in May 1980, Mr. Lim was sent into exile as an ambassador to Nigeria and then Australia.

It was in the turbulent 1980s, as South Korea yielded to a tumultuous democracy movement, that the fortunes of Kim Dae Jung and Lim Dong Won began to improve and intertwine.

Kim Dae Jung, after having been sentenced to death, was permitted in 1982 to leave for asylum in the United States, from which he returned with guarantees for his safety in 1985. Mr. Lim, home from Australia, emerged in 1988 as deputy chief of the unification board under Mr. Chun's hand-picked successor, Roh Tae Woo, and espoused the soft line that drew him to Mr. Kim.

Mr. Lim visited Pyongyang in 1991 and 1992 for negotiations on the so-called Basic Agreement achieved between the North and the South. At the same time, he inspired the enmity of the South Korean intelligence service, then the Korean Central Intelligence agency, when the North Koreans set up a meeting between Mr. Lim and his long-lost sister who had remained in the North.

"The KCIA suspected him," said Choi Won Ki, long-time specialist on North Korea for the newspaper Joongang Ilbo. "They bugged his telephone. KCIA agents watched him."

The experience made Mr. Lim all the more receptive to Kim Dae Jung's overtures. In early 1995, he officially joined Kim Dae Jung's camp, becoming secretary-general of Mr. Kim's Asia-Pacific Peace Foundation, a private organization supported by donations.

"By luring Lim, D.J. thought he could attract former generals to his side," said a former colleague of Kim Dae Jung's at the foundation. "D.J. had free time. He and Lim talked every night. They got to know each other very well." The relationship paid off for Mr. Lim when President Kim, after his inauguration in February 1998, appointed him senior secretary for foreign policy and national security.

In promoting an summit meeting, formally proposed by Mr. Kim in his inaugural address, Mr. Lim realized that one of the main challenges was to convince the Americans. In a series of meetings with William Perry, the former defense secretary appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1998 to coordinate policy on North Korea, Mr. Lim presented the case for a moderate approach. "D.J.'s life goal was to arrange an inter-Korean summit," said Choi Won Ki. "If Perry adopted a hard-line policy on Pyongyang, his dream is gone."

The job was not easy. Problems arose when the North fired a Taepodong missile over Japan on Aug. 31, 1998, and suspicions were raised by the North's excavation of a cave suspected of harboring nuclear facilities. An inspection of the cave in March 1999 found nothing, but the Americans were not inclined to adopt a soft line.

That same month, in a meeting in the Blue House, the center of South Korean presidential power, Mr. Kim told Mr. Perry, "Now we are conducting secret contacts with North Korea to hold an inter-Korean summit," according to Mr. Choi.

"D.J. told Perry, 'We need your help,' " Mr. Choi said.

Two months later, in May 1999, after conferring again with Mr. Lim, this time in Tokyo, Mr. Perry flew to Pyongyang - four months before completing a policy review that opened the way to normalization of relations between the United States and North Korea and the removal of sanctions on trade.

The talks with Mr. Perry were part of an overall strategy that included the ongoing secret talks that Kim Bo Hyun had been conducting in Beijing since December 1998. On March 9, 2000, near the end of the Beijing talks, President Kim enunciated his "Berlin Declaration" at the Free University of Berlin, announcing that he was willing to provide the infrastructure needed to revive the North's economy.

The declaration caught American diplomats by surprise. The Blue House had not told them about it in advance. With the Perry review already out, however, they had no choice but to endorse it. The U.S. administration was now unreservedly on the side of almost anything Mr. Kim might do in the quest for reconciliation.

It was at that stage that the South Korean culture minister, Park Jie Won, formerly President Kim's spokesman, entered the dialogue, going to Beijing on March 17 to work out the details of the announcement in April that the leaders of North and South would meet in June. Mr. Park was credited at the time with doing most of the negotiations, but the process when he came upon the scene was almost finished.

The only remaining mystery was why he, together with Kim Bo Hyun, had to make a secret trip to Singapore earlier in March for another meeting with two of Kim Yong Sun's deputies on the Asia-Pacific Peace committee.

The purpose of the Singapore trip, in the view of North Korea watchers in Seoul, may have been to place an enormous sum in one of Kim Jong Il's foreign bank accounts. While the payoff remains unconfirmed, it is believed that it was necessary in a society where bribery, often in the guise of gift-giving, is a long-standing tradition in both Koreas, North and South.

A banking center where the money could have been transferred secretly with no difficulty, Singapore was the only place other than Pyongyang or Beijing where such contacts were made. North Korea watchers here could think of no other reason for the two to have met there, rather than in Beijing.

In the onrush of contacts with the North since the Pyongyang summit talks, Mr. Lim has sought to ensure continuity by broadening the structure for dealing with the North inside the intelligence agency. Some observers believe that Mr. Lim wants to step down as intelligence chief and return to his original role as a special adviser in Kim Dae Jung's administration.

Whatever comes next, Mr. Lim is sure to remain in close touch with the North through Kim Yong Sun. It is a potentially dangerous role for which he may pay a high price if conservative forces succeed in forcing the Blue House to scale down its overtures to the North.

Foes of Kim Dae Jung find Lim Dong Won an easy target for one basic reason. In pursuit of rapprochement, they say, both Mr. Kim and Mr. Lim have compromised the mission of the intelligence service: to spy on the North and prevent subversion in the South.

Mr. Lim exposed himself to criticism during the Korean Chusok holidays in September when he escorted Kim Yong Sun on the tour of the South. In flagrant violation of his own rules against publicity, he was seen constantly at Kim Yong Sun's side in such diverse settings as the resort island of Cheju and the showcase Pohang Iron Steel Corp.

"People are wondering how the director of our NIS could be Secretary Kim Yong Sun's personal escort for almost the entire duration of his visit," editorialized Chosun Ilbo, the country's largest newspaper and a persistent critic of government policy. "The work of the director of the NIS is to protect the country from espionage, terror, and threats both foreign and domestic. This is supposed to be done in as much secrecy as possible."

The critics were hardly satisfied when Kim Yong Sun's sortie to Cheju turned out to have been a prelude to an unprecedented meeting there between the defense ministers of the two Koreas - and possibly to a visit to Seoul by Kim Jong Il later this year.

"Lim Dong Won is a defender of our system, but he seems to serve Kim Jong Il, head of our main enemy, with utmost reverence," said a spokesman for the opposition Grand National Party. "Lim should resign."

Mr. Lim in turn has become increasingly upset by the rising crescendo of attacks on his tactics and strategy.

"He has requested reporters not to write about him," said Cho Kab Je, author of a book on the intelligence service and editor of the Monthly Chosun, a prestigious journal published by Chosun Ilbo. "He wants to be left alone from internal politics."

Mr. Lim may get his wish.

"He understands he is a target," said Choi Jin Wook, researcher at the Korea Institute of National Unification, an adjunct of the Unification Ministry that Mr. Lim headed before President Kim elevated him run the intelligence agency. "He wants to be dismissed."

As head of the intelligence service, Mr. Lim is particularly vulnerable given the fate of some of his predecessors.

"He has provided extraordinary service for the president," said Cho Kab Je, author of a book on the South Korean intelligence agency and editor of the prestigious conservative journal Monthly Chosun. "For most, however, it has been a risky position. Historically, many people have been jailed or killed."

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