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Yoon Mee Hyang Showcases Her North Korea Connections in a Mysterious Trip to Tokyo

Event organizers included pro-North Korea groups, but did attending mean Yoon Mee Hyang will be prosecuted for violating South Korea's National Security Act?



Yoon Mee Hyang speaks at the Wednesday Rally in 2020 (©Justice for the Comfort Women)

On September 1, Yoon Mee Hyang, a South Korean assemblywoman and former head of the Korean Council, visited Tokyo to attend a memorial service. The service was dedicated to observing the 100th anniversary of Koreans massacred following the Great Kanto Earthquake. 

Yoon was among the nine representatives from South Korea. Others included Lee Na-young, the current chairwoman of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (formerly the Korean Council). 

Yoon Mee Hyang (front) and Lee Na-young (back) lining up for the wreath-laying ceremony during the memorial service. (©Mainichi Shimbun Youtube Screenshot) 

This seemingly ordinary endeavor by Yoon Mee Hyang, however, has sparked enormous controversy over the past few weeks. Why?

Soon after her visit to Tokyo, conservative media began reporting that the memorial service was organized by the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan. This group is often referred to as Chōsen Sōren. The problem is that this Zainichi (residents in Japan) Korean group is known to have intimate ties to North Korea. So close, in fact, that they are often considered a de facto North Korean Embassy.  

Yoon Mee Hyang Under Fire 

For this trip, Yoon Mee Hyang traveled in an official capacity enjoying preferential treatment while in Japan. But when she returned home, firestorms awaited her. She was immediately bashed by critics and accused of violating several laws in South Korea.

In 1970, the South Korean Supreme Court designated Chōsen Sōren as an "anti-state organization that supports and praises the North Korean government." Under the South Korean National Security Act, any person who makes contact with a member of an anti-government organization or receives an order from it with the knowledge that it may threaten national security or democratic order can be punished by imprisonment.

Additionally, Article 9 Section 2 of the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act requires anyone intending to make contact with residents of North Korea to report to the Ministry of Unification beforehand. Yoon failed to do so. 

The Unification Ministry recently dispatched an official letter seeking details from Yoon and will begin the process of imposing a fine.

Joo Oksoon (center), head of the Mother's Unit, gives a short talk before submitting a complaint against Yoon Mee Hyang. (©Oh Il-shin)

Civic Groups Lodge Protests

On September 4, Mother's Unit and End Comfort Women Fraud, South Korean civic groups, lodged a complaint against Yoon at the Seoul Western District Prosecutors' Office. A day later, Lee Jong-bae, a member of the Seoul Metropolitan Council, filed a similar complaint at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency. 

Yoon Mee Hyang is accused, among other things, of breaching the above laws. She is also accused of falsifying public documents and obstruction of justice. A police investigation officially commenced earlier in September. 

Yoon's Side of the Story 

Despite the mounting scandal, left-leaning politicians and media came in defense of Yoon Mee Hyang. And on September 5, she released a statement countering media outlets and lawmakers denouncing her of wrongdoing. She also appeared on Kim Ou-Joon's News Factory on the same day to elucidate her situation. 


Yoon Mee Hyang argued that Chōsen Sōren was only one of some 100 groups involved in organizing the ceremony. She denied being invited by the group and claimed she did not come in contact with any of its members.

Regarding the Unification Ministry's accusation, Yoon said that memorial services are not part of the prior reporting requirement. Here again, she maintained not having met any North Koreans at the event. 

In response, the Ministry of Unification said that the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act treats any members of Chōsen Sōren as North Korean residents. Therefore preliminary reporting was necessary in Yoon Mee Hyang's case.

JAPAN Forward contacted Yoon's office for comments, but they have yet to respond to our questions. 

Pro-North Korean Event or Not? 

Yoon and those around her have rushed to deny the claim that the memorial service had close ties to Chōsen Sōren. It is true that Chōsen Sōren wasn't the only organization overseeing the memorial that day. But one need not look further than the list of attendees to recognize the event's pro-North Korea and pro-communist overtone.  

Take, for instance, Yasuhiko Miyakawa, the executive chairperson for the memorial service. He is the president of the Japan-North Korea Association, an organization formed in 1955 that vigorously opposes bolstering the Tokyo-Washington alliance. During the late 1950s and 60s, the North Korean government actively utilized this group to establish a Unified Front in Japan. 

Yasuhiko Miyakawa gives opening remarks at the memorial service. (©Mainichi Shimbun Youtube Screenshot)

Notably, the group worked to sabotage diplomatic normalization between Tokyo and Seoul. It further worked to promote the Japan-North Korea Friendship Movement with the help of the Japanese Communist Party. 

Explaining the Zainichi Issue

Contacted by a reporter, Tsutomu Nishioka, a professor at Reitaku University and an expert on North Korean affairs, said: 

"Prior to 1955, most Zainichi communists were affiliated with the Japanese Communist Party. But after Kim Il Sung instructed Zainichi Koreans to work towards a revolution in Korea and not Japan, they seceded and formed the Chōsen Sōren. Thereafter, the Japanese Communist Party created the Japan-North Korea Association as a liaison between Chōsen Sōren and the North Korean regime. In other words, the Association from its inception had undeniable North Korean inclinations."  

The ceremony was also attended by leaders of Chōsen Sōren, including Chairman Ho Jong-man and first vice-chairman Park Gu-ho. In 2020, Chairman Ho received the title of North Korea's highest degree of distinction "Hero of Labor." Ko Deok-woo, chairman of Chōsen Sōren's Tokyo Headquarters delivered a eulogy that referred to the South Korean government as "America’s puppet." 

Other noteworthy guests included Yumi Satoyoshi, Junko Hara, and Akira Harada, local politicians affiliated with the Japanese Communist Party. Daichi Nakagawa, vice president of the Japan-China Friendship Association's Tokyo Federation, delivered the closing remarks. 


Scandal After Scandal 

On September 5, JoonAng Ilbo, a leading newspaper in South Korea, published an exclusive story on Yoon Mee Hyang's other alleged impropriety in Tokyo.

According to their report, Yoon Mee Hyang apparently participated in a rally demanding funding for the Chōsen gakkō after the memorial service. Chōsen gakkō are foreign schools established in Japan where students (mostly composed of Zainichi Koreans) receive ethnic North Korean-centered education and learn about North Korean ideology. Not surprisingly, all classrooms hang portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Photo taken at Tokyo Korean Junior and Senior High School, one of 64 Chōsen gakkō remaining in Japan. (©Public Domain, courtesy of Hoshu)
Yoon Mee Hyang (left), Kim Bok-dong (center), and Gil Won-ok (right) are being greeted by students and faculties at the Johoku Korean Elementary School, a Chōsen gakkō in Osaka Prefecture. Kim and Gil are former Korean comfort women. (©Justice for the Comfort Women)

Yoon Mee Hyang was again put on the spot after it was revealed that Mindan, the Korean Residents Union in Japan, also coordinated a similar event that same day. Mindan and Chōsen Sōren are the two largest organizations for Koreans living in Japan. But the former has far more amiable ties with Seoul and Tokyo. Yoon Mee Hyang, however, took a pass on their ceremony. 

Recurring pro-North Korean Activities

Yoon's participation in an apparent pro-North Korean event has reignited debate over her and her close acquaintances' dubious track records. J Mark Ramseyer, a Harvard Law School professor researched this matter in depth. In an interview with JAPAN Forward, he noted "North Korean ties seem to run in Yoon's family and her inner circle."

Ramseyer is right. In 1992 South Korean police apprehended Yoon Mee Hyang's husband, Kim Sam-seok, and his sister for violating the National Security Act. The two went to Japan, met with a North Korean agent, passed on sensitive documents, and received payments in return. Both were tried and convicted, although Kim's jail sentence was reduced after a retrial. 

Kim Sam-seok (right) shaking hands with Lee Seok-ki. Lee was a former lawmaker in the Unified Progressive Party. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2014 for plotting an armed rebellion against the South Korean government. (©Lee Seok-ki's blog post)

In 2006, the husband of Kim Sam-seok's sister (Yoon's sister-in-law), Choi Ki-young, was arrested for his involvement in the infamous Il Shim Hue Incident. Choi and four other members of Il Shim Hue, a Fifth Column, were tried and convicted for spying on behalf of North Korea. Choi was also the former Policy Planning Director for the Unified Progressive Party, a now-disbanded pro-North political entity.

Yoon's former National Assembly aide "A" is also being investigated by the National Intelligence Service on suspicion of violating the National Security Act. "A" was spotted in Vietnam in 2016 meeting North Korean personnel and is accused of transmitting codified reports to North Korea. This occurred while the alleged suspect worked for Yoon Mee Hyang.

What Will Happen to Yoon? 

Will Yoon Mee Hyang be penalized for her actions? Probably not. While the National Security Act has been applied to varying degrees in the past, indictment and conviction have decreased in recent years. Moreover, whether Yoon intended to or actually came in contact with member(s) of an anti-state group boils down to a question of evidence. 

Yoo Sang-bum of the ruling People Power Party suggested that Yoon Mee Hyang's silence over Ko Deok-woo's eulogy may be an indictable offense under the National Security Act. The said law also penalizes those who "act in concert with" the activities of an antigovernment organization. But again, prosecutorial trends are not in his favor. 

Moreover, under former president Moon Jae In, laws were enacted and amended, to shrink prosecutors’ and National Intelligence Services' anti-communist investigation authority.

"Anti-communist investigative power will soon be transferred to the police [under the new law]. But it’s highly questionable whether the police have the capability to probe such a case. Yoon’s shenanigans, therefore, will likely be regarded as one of many ‘political scandals,’” said a law school professor familiar with this issue who asked to remain anonymous.

Lee Young-soo, an alleged former comfort woman, held a second press conference in 2020 exposing Yoon Mee Hyang and the Korean Council for taking advantage of comfort women. (©YTN News Youtube Screenshot)

No Laughing Matter

Regardless, reports of Yoon Mee Hyang's recent activities have not been received well by the general public. First, there is the pending investigation. Furthermore, Yoon was convicted in February 2023 of siphoning public funds during her time as chairwoman of the Korean Council. The organization is considered the largest comfort women advocacy group in Korea. She was fined ₩15 million won ($11,900 USD) and expelled by the Democratic Party of Korea. Her appeal is ongoing. 

Yoon Mee Hyang's recent controversy also comes at an inopportune time for her. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol recently declared war against communist ideology.

Yoon Suk-yeol delivers a speech at the Ewha Women's University on August 15, 2023. (©Office of the President of the ROK Facebook)

Impact of President's Liberation Day Speech

South Korea's president, in his 78th anniversary Liberation Day speech, said: "We must never succumb to the forces of communist totalitarianism. We must not be deceived by those who follow and serve them." 

His statement that day has garnered the support of many domestic constituents as well as foreign observers. The Yoon Suk-yeol administration's latest venture to delegitimize historical figures with communist links, such as Hong Beom-do, demonstrates his commitment. Yoon Mee Hyang's blatant pro-North Korean behaviors now may therefore backfire come election time. 

Yoon Mee Hyang (farthest right) visited Japan with ten South Korean lawmakers in July to oppose Fukushima Daiichi's treated water release. (©Yoon Mee Hyang Facebook)

Whether Yoon Mee Hyang will be convicted or disciplined by the National Assembly's ethics committee remains to be seen. Nevertheless, this incident should not be left unaddressed by lawmakers in Tokyo. Yoon consistently demonstrates anti-Japan behaviors and vilifies Japan and its people. It's time for Tokyo to seriously consider whether she should be permitted to enter the country freely in the future. 


Author: Kenji Yoshida

Find freelance writer Kenji Yoshida's reports on issues, events, and history related to South Korea and Japan on JAPAN Forward.

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