My Name Is Min, Mrs. Min…

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

One can imagine how the friends and relatives of Min Yong-mi, a 35 year old housewife, were shocked to learn in June 1998 that the woman was detained as a South Korean special agent who had undergone special training and snuck herself into the North to destabilize the North Korean government.

What did earn the woman, an otherwise quite typical South Korean ajuma, a mother of two children, such a James Bond style reputation? Obviously, few comments she made on June 20, 1999, when talking to a guide while on tour in the Kumgang Mountains.

Actually, the description of what happened at 1:40 pm differ. All reports agree that the entire affair began when Mrs. Min asked a North Korean tour guide or “environmental inspector” how to read a rare Chinese character in one of the names of the Buddha that was carved on a rock. The “inspector” (in all probability, a plain clothes policemen) did not know the character as well. The conversation followed.

According to one version, Mrs. Min merely said that after unification the guide would be able to meet her in Seoul. However, it is more likely that the talk was far less innocent. Obviously, somehow Mrs. Min and her guide began to talk about defectors to the South (still a relatively small group in those days). Mrs. Min assured her North Korean interlocutor that the defectors were doing all right. The guide expressed his disbelief and said that all defectors are sentenced to hard labor. Mrs. Min assured him that this was not the case and said something like “If you come to the South, you will see for itself.” According to another version, she said something more moderate, to the effect that defectors were getting by quite well in the South.

Whatever the case, she was ordered to surrender her provisional ID and pay a fine of $100. Realizing that she was in trouble, Mrs. Min complied immediately, but it was too late. She was detained, accused of subversive propaganda, and spent about a week in detention, being interrogated by officers who arrived from Pyongyang.

The detention of Mrs. Min was the first crisis in the history of the Kumgang Project, then as now the largest joint operation of the two Koreas, a showcase of economic cooperation between the two governments.

The project was conceived in 1989, when Chung Ju-yung, the founder of the Hyundai Group, visited North Korea for the first time. One of the schemes briefly discussed in 1989 was an idea of a large tourist park in the North, to be patronised by South Korean tourists. The park was to be located in the Kumgang (“Diamond”) Mountains which for centuries have been regarded in Korean culture as an embodiment of scenic beauty. The mountains conveniently lay near the DMZ, the border between two Korean states.

It took, however, a decade and some major political changes to start the project moving. It was only in November 1998 that the Kumgang Mountain Tourist Project began to operate.

The idea was simple. The North Koreans created a type of ghetto for the South Korean visitors. A part of the Kumgang Mountains was fenced off, and the local population was moved away. The South Korean tourists took a cruise ship to the area. The ship moored in a local harbour, while the visitors went on mountain walks and sight-seeing trips.

This clever scheme solved the greatest problem Pyongyang saw in its interactions with the South – the problem of information flow. The North Korean commoners are supposed to believe that their South Korean brethren are suffering under the cruel yoke of the US imperialists. Understandably, their government does not want them to know that the per capita GNP in the South is 20 to 30 times higher than in the North. In the Kumgang Mountain Project the rich Southerners were kept out of sight of the average North Koreans, being accompanied only by a handful of carefully selected minders.

However, there always was a threat that South Koreans would do something improper. They were instructed before their trip not to talk politics at all. But how could those spoilt people from a decadent bourgeoisie society be trusted to behave themselves? A subject lesson in obedience was needed.

Some circumstances make us suspect that the entire affair was prepared in advance, and that the guide was deliberately provoking Mrs. Min. However, this is likely to remain uncertain until the collapse of the North Korean regime and the de-classification of their documents. It is still probable that Mrs. Min was simply unlucky. But it is clear that the North Korean side expected something like it to happen.

Mrs. Min’s ordeal lasted for a week. Pyongyang radio claimed her as a South Korean spy, the tours were suspended for a time, and frantic diplomatic activity ensued. Mrs. Min was released after six days of detention, to spend some time in hospital. But the North Korean authorities had attained their goal: they demonstrated that tourists are better to mind their tongues while enjoying the scenic beauties of the Kumgang area.

There were more detentions of South Korean tourists, none of which received comparable publicity. But the lesson had been given, and South Koreans learned to behave themselves.

The Mrs. Min incident contributed to the ongoing crisis of the Kumgang project. This crisis came to a climax in spring 2001 when the tours were almost discontinued. The Kumgang project was salvaged by a large-scale government intervention, but that is another story…


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