TOKYO — A Korean American woman who traveled around South Korea saying complimentary things about North Korea could be deported as soon as Friday. Authorities in Seoul have accused her of violating South Korea’s anti-communist National Security Law.
The bizarre case has elicited furious reactions from conservatives and North Korean defectors. It also has raised questions about freedom of speech in the democratic South.
Shin Eun-mi, a 54-year-old classical singer from Los Angeles, was barred from leaving South Korea in the past three weeks while
being investigated on suspicion of breaching the country’s decades-old National Security Law, which prohibits “aiding the enemy.”
After the travel ban expired Thursday, prosecutors asked the Justice Ministry to deport Shin back to the United States and to ban her from returning for five years. She arrived in Seoul on a tourist visa in November.
A spokesman for the prosecutor’s office said that even if foreign nationals have not been charged with a crime, they can still be deported if thought to pose a danger to public safety.
Shin, who denies allegations that she is pro-Pyongyang, said she was the subject of a “witch hunt.”
“The prosecutors asked me about the content of the talking event, my books, postings and my lectures in the U.S. in great detail,” said Shin, who was born in South Korea but moved to the United States. “I told them that I am the victim of false reporting by conservative media outlets.”
The case relates to Shin’s lectures in South Korea, in which she talked about her repeated trips to North Korea. The North technically remains an enemy of the South because the Korean War ended in 1953 in an armistice, not a peace treaty.
“I wish to live my life helping North Korea by opening a youth center in the North,” Shin said during a lecture last month in the South Korean city of Iksan that was abruptly brought to a stop when an 18-year-old high school senior threw a handmade bomb at her. Three people were injured.
Conservative groups have protested — verbally — at similar talks Shin has given, calling her a North Korea sympathizer.
Shin and her husband first visited North Korea in 2011. After her second trip, in 2012, she gained a huge following with her travel reports by “an ordinary middle-aged woman” for OhmyNews, a news Web site run by “citizen reporters.”
In her postings, Shin had offered a positive view of life in North Korea, talking about a “warm hearted, pretty and lovely” waitress she met at a hotel and about luxurious restaurants in Pyongyang that she said were not just for communist party members and foreign visitors but for everybody.
Her book — “Korean-American Ajumma Goes to North Korea,” using the Korean word for a middle-aged married woman — was included on the South Korean Culture Ministry’s recommended-reading list in 2013 but was recently removed.
Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on North Korea who lives in Seoul, defended Shin’s right to free speech, though he did not agree with her.
“The ideas of Mrs. Shin might be naive and, occasionally, used by rather nasty forces, but she should have the right to say what she thinks,” Lankov said.
The National Security Law, enacted in 1948 after the division of the Korean Peninsula, should have been scrapped years ago, he said.
“One should remember that the communist parties remained operational in most Western democracies in the days of the Cold War, even though their connections with Soviet intelligence and their dependency on not-so-
secret Soviet subsidies was common knowledge,” Lankov said. “The sooner this law is repealed, the better.”
Amnesty International also has sharply criticized the law, issuing a report in 2012 that said the statute had been used to undermine “citizens’ enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and association.”
Shin had been on the road talking about North Korea with Hwang Sun, a left-wing activist who was the deputy spokeswoman for the now-defunct Democratic Labor Party, which authorities considered “anti-state.”
Prosecutors also asked for an arrest warrant for Hwang for the same offenses. The 40-year-old South Korean national became the subject of controversy when it emerged that she had given birth in Pyongyang by Caesarean section on Oct. 10, 2005, the anniversary of the founding of the North Korean Workers’ Party.