South Korean pilot grounded as possible Kim Jong-Il sympathizer
REPORTING FROM SEOUL –- Government officials have indefinitely grounded a commercial airline pilot while investigators determine whether the veteran captain is a North Korean sympathizer who might one day flee with a jumbo jet for the not-so friendly skies of Kim Jong-Il’s regime.
Call it a case of either good police work or just plain cross-border paranoia, but officials this week raided the home of a 45-year-old Korean Air pilot, seizing his computer hard drive and several documents they say laud the North Korean strongman.
Possessing or trafficking in North Korean paraphernalia or engaging in pro-North Korea activities is a violation of South Korea's national security law.
The pilot, whose full name was not released, has been barred from leaving the country and officials have ordered Korean Air not to let him pilot any commercial airliner until the investigation is completed.
A Korean Air spokeswoman said the flag-carrier was "embarrassed and shocked" by the revelations. She said Kim would be suspended from all duties at the request of police.
Prosecutors told a South Korean newspaper that the pilot is a frequent visitor to a pro-Pyongyang website that is under government investigation. They said the pilot posted several comments that praised the North Korean dictator before the website was shut down last year.
“We determined that Kim’s activities were way beyond a curiosity,” one prosecutor told the Korean JongAng Daily. “He’s continuously posted and propagandized pro-Pyongyang messages for a long time.”
Prosecutors also raided the offices of the Seoul-based website, known as Cyber Command for National Defense, gathering information on an additional 10 suspects.
The site had 6,500 members, including several South Korean soldiers and military officers as well as officials from several large Seoul-based companies.
The site’s founder was charged this fall with violating national security laws. At his trial in September, the man announced to the court that “Kim Jong-Il and [his father] Kim Il Sung are the leader and father of our people and the heroes of our race.”
In recent months, several other South Koreans have been arrested for activities considered pro-North Korean. One woman was charged with smuggling 1,300 North Korean-produced paintings for sale in Seoul galleries and on the Internet.
Many depicted pastoral landscapes or images of North Korean life. South Korean officials fear proceeds from the sale of the prints might go to help the ailing regime.
But South Korean courts have suggested that the government might be going too far in its watchdog role. In a recent ruling, one judge decided that a 49-year-old man could not be jailed for possessing a North Korean flag or photos of the regime’s leaders.
“In order to be viewed as materials that aid the enemy, [items] should include proactive and aggressive content that put South Korea’s existence, security and liberal democratic order in danger,” the judge ruled. “The flag and the photos cannot be regarded in this light.”
However, the judge upheld a charge that the man made an illegal visit to Pyongyang, which is also against South Korean law.
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: Korean Air Lines airplanes. Credit: SeongJoon Cho / Bloomberg