Thursday, July 23, 2009

New York Times: Korean-American Community Says John Choe's Pro-North Korea Agenda Makes Him "A Dangerous Man"

"Man's Bridge To North Korea Is Seen as Link To Espionage"
From: New York Times, November 5th, 2003

A few months ago, John Choe says, his parents began receiving strange and frightening phone calls at their home on Staten Island. ''Why is your son being paid by the government of North Korea?'' one anonymous caller asked. ''Did you know the F.B.I. is doing surveillance of your son?'' asked another.

Mr. Choe, 33, a community organizer from Queens, says he is not a spy. But to some in the city's large Korean community, he is something just as bad: a ''sympathizer'' who helped found a group that arranges trips to North Korea and features on its Web site a glowingly positive account of that country and its communist dictator.

There have been whispered accusations of North Korean influence in Queens for years. They grew louder last winter when Pyongyang provoked a crisis after it announced its plan to build nuclear weapons. Early last month, Korean-language newspapers in New York dropped their own rhetorical bombs: the South Korean Consulate General, they reported, had announced that three New York organizations -- including one that Mr. Choe helped found -- were controlled by North Korea.

Mr. Choe dismisses the accusation as ludicrous. The group he helped found, Nodutdol for Korean Community Development, is not pro-North, he says. It advocates peaceful reunification of the Koreas, like the two other groups, the Korean American National Coordinating Council (whose president also denied the consulate general's accusations) and the Congress for Korean Unification (whose spokesman would not comment).

The South Korean Consulate also would not comment on the matter, and calls to North Korea's United Nations office were not returned.

Mr. Choe acknowledges that Nodutdol arranges educational trips to North Korea, but only because its 50 or so members want to see what is really happening there.

The controversy, he says, was manufactured by conservative Korean-Americans. ''It's a lot like what's going on in the Cuban community,'' he said. ''The younger generation is starting to challenge the old anticommunist way of thinking, and the older generation doesn't like it.''

New York City Council member John C. Liu, who represents Flushing and employed Mr. Choe as legislative director until the end of August, says his former aide has been unjustly maligned. ''There's a pretty mean streak of McCarthyism out there,'' Mr. Liu said. Mr. Choe left the position to take two yearlong fellowships, Mr. Liu added, not, as many Korean-Americans in Queens say, because of the controversy over Nodutdol.

But to some in the community, Mr. Choe is a dangerous man. ''If we don't speak up,'' said Ellen Kang, a postal worker from Woodside who orchestrated much of the campaign against Mr. Choe, ''these people will influence our children.''

Mrs. Kang was so outraged when she discovered in March that Mr. Choe worked for her own city councilman that she formed Korean American Defenders of Freedom and began organizing rallies to demand that Mr. Liu either fire Mr. Choe or force him to cut his ties to Nodutdol (the word means ''steppingstone'' in Korean).

Mrs. Kang knows that she has been labeled a wild-eyed conservative, and she deeply resents it. ''Some people are against war and love America, and that's O.K.,'' she said. ''These people are against the war and hate America.''

Others feel the same. In March, the Korean American Association of Greater New York was deluged with angry phone calls and letters, including one from the South Korean Consulate, after it offered to rent office space to Nodutdol for a meeting to protest the Iraq war. Finally, the group was forced to rescind its offer. Andrew Kim, who was the association's president at the time, said he would have preferred to allow the meeting in the name of free speech.

It is not hard to see the worries. Nodutdol's Web site, which is in English at, includes a journal and photographs by Yul San Liem, 24, who presents North Korea as a harmonious place, full of happy people free of Western advertising. There is plenty of praise for the former dictator Kim Il Sung.

North Koreans, Ms. Liem writes, ''have built a nation from nothing when the Western Imperialists would have had them fall, have constructed a society in which people actually desire what is best of each other, rather than what is best for the individual self, who resist the clutches of global capitalism, who have survived such hardships and risen up alive, united and strong.''

The site doesn't mention that North Korean citizens can reportedly be sent to the gulag for watching television. There is only a passing reference to the famine that killed an estimated 2.5 million North Koreans in the mid-1990's, a result, many observers say, of the government's policies.

North Korea boosterism may sound bizarre to Americans who remember that President Bush included the country in his ''axis of evil.'' But the boosterism has been increasingly common in South Korea ever since it adopted its conciliatory ''sunshine policy'' toward the North several years ago, said Victor Cha, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University.

''There's a strange kind of infatuation with North Korea,'' Professor Cha said. ''They see it as, at worst, a decrepit regime, or a crazy uncle in the attic; either way, not very threatening. Many people would argue there is great naïeveté in that view.''

The two other groups accused of being controlled by North Korea, the Congress for Korean Unification and the Korean American National Coordinating Council, have Web sites that offer selections from the writings of the Great Leader, as Kim Il Sung is known, and his son, Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader.

The Rev. Michael Hahm, president of the Korean American National Coordinating Council, says he is not happy with the site, which is run independently out of the group's Washington office. (A call to that office was not returned.)

''We are trying to be a bridge between North Korea and the Korean community,'' Mr. Hahm said. ''If we don't know anything about the other side, we are not going to have a good dialogue.''

Mr. Choe agrees. ''I think there's a deeply felt need to say, just looking at South Korea is half our heritage,'' he said. ''We can't just lie down and be silent when the U.S. is about to launch a war.''
Mr. Choe seems almost amused by the controversy that has risen up around him. He volunteers the fact that he spent his honeymoon in North Korea three years ago and does not doubt that his government minders in the North showed him only what they wanted him to see. But he also says North Korea has been unjustly vilified in the Western media.

In the end, he said with a wry smile, all the bad publicity may have helped his cause. ''Ironically,'' he said, ''our higher profile has helped us recruit people.''

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