The Dear Reader: DPRK Observations & Musings


North Korea’s Mata Hari

Although Laura Ling and Euna Lee’s producer-cameraman Mitchell Koss greatly endangered North Korean refugees and their helpers by fleeing back to the Chinese side of the border on March 17th and thereby allowing the Chinese authorities to seize his camera footage, the fallout from his actions is nothing compared to that engendered by Won Jeong-hwa. As we approach the one-year anniversary of this 35-year-old’s time served in a South Korean jail (October 15th), it’s worth revisiting the @CurrentVanguard-worthy case of North Korea‘s equivalent to the infamous Mata Hari.

This North Korean spy’s accomplishments are two-fold. Having initially fled to China in the 1990s, she returned in 1998 and went on to help arrange the abduction of some 100 North Koreans and seven South Koreans. Then, in 2001, she relocated to South Korea, where she posed as a defector and firmly established herself as an appointed public speaker, regaling factory audiences with tales of the evil Hermit Kingdom. Along the way, she successfully seduced at least one South Korean officer and passed back information about defectors, military secrets and more.

Jeon-hwa (pictured above) was finally caught in the spring of 2008 with a 65-year-old “foster father,”, and though she could have been given the death penalty for her crimes (she was found guilty on all counts), lucky for her the trial took place in South Korea, not the North. She ultimately received a five-year sentence from the Suwon District Court south of Seoul.

The trial also revealed that during one of her trips back to China from South Korea to liaise with fellow operatives, she took possession of poisoned syringes to assassinate one of North Korea’s highest ranking defectors as well as various South Korean officials. But that part of the plan was never successfully carried out. Still, from November 2006 until her capture, Jeon-hwa made 52 more “security lectures,” during which she customarily blamed the U.S. and Japan for the Korean War and framed North Korea’s nuclear armament as a simple act of self-defense.


Filed under: Commentary

7 Responses

  1. Spelunker says:

    I just read the piece by Mitch Koss at the Vanguard blog and left a comment, which of course was not published immediately but will likely vanish in moderation.

    Here it is copied and pasted in the true spirit of uncensored journalistic freedom:

    Hello Mitch!
    I’m interested in the creative freedom behind Vanguard’s decision to cross the China/North Korea border on March 17. Did you really think you were going to cross the Tumen River and interview North Koreans on the opposite shore? It must have been difficult to hold your camera steady as Laura and Euna were being chased by armed border guards. What was your impression of the local guide who was making cell phone calls to his “associates” in North Korea”? Did you think he would not betray Vanguard’s compelling and illuminating reporting?

    • Jeremy says:

      Well, I doubt he was filming them being chased.
      And their decision to cross the border aside, I take back any criticism I made of Koss here before because there was really nothing he could do when faced with rifle-toting KPA border guards (and he probably didn’t have time to get rid of any compromising evidence on him before being apprehended by the PAP).

      But I would still like to see him give his side on this.

      • liberatelaura says:

        I thought the lead was sort of buried in yesterday’s @latimes piece by @mateagold about the 3rd season debut of @CurrentVanguard.

        After all those months of Gore-mandated silence, there was @current programming chief David Neuman – in the middle of the article – clearly admitting that the crossing of the Tumen was an imprudent risk taken in the name of storytelling, and that he was schooling his team of reporters not to assume such risks again.

        As far as Koss, I too have come to share Jeremy’s POV; in the hazy light of dawn, he did what he did, and unless he specifically counseled Laura-Euna not to follow the guide, etc., there is not much more to tell.

  2. Spelunker says:

    I won’t stop until these questions are answered:

    1. Whose idea was it to follow the local guide across the Tumen River to do an interview on the opposite shore?

    2. I want to hear from Mitch Koss what his impression of the local guide was during the day when cell phone calls to North Korean associates wer being made. Laura and Euna’s deposition included a bunch of twaddle about trusting him while Current was conducting interviews in Yanji.

    3. Were Mitch and the local guide captured together by Chinese police? If so, at what point were they separated?

    4. Why did the Chinese let Mitch go with such a relatively quick release? I really want to know what he told them about the location of capture; did Mitch say the girls were caught on Chinese soil?

    If Mitch thinks he can post safely on the Internet again then he’s wrong; Spelunker will pursue the truth from Koss until all loose ends are tied in a nice neat knot.

    • liberatelaura says:

      You make a good point via #3 and #4 about Koss’s experiences once he was in Chinese custody. But as far as #1 and #2, chances are he will continue to defer to his @current boss Laura.

  3. Spelunker says:

    I’m closing in on the truth. A confidential friend on Facebook has directed my attention to a written statement by Mitch Koss about how to manage risk in dangerous situations:
    One note on risk. As a long time veteran of this business, I always tell my young colleagues when we’re going anywhere potentially hazardous: Don’t be afraid to be cowardly. In this encounter, you’ll see from the footage on my camera, when everyone started to run, I ran the fastest and furthest. (June 7, 2007)

    • Not sure if I think this is admirably honest, or terribly embarrassing. Either way, Koss appears two years later to have most certainly put his money where his Current TV comments mouth is.

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