Spy Nation (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): A persistent journalistic record against injustices


Because I heard numerous news reports about its subject, there are not many things to surprise or enlighten me in South Korean documentary “Spy Nation”, but I could not help but be angry about a number of infuriating cases presented in the documentary, which are in fact a tip of a far bigger problem. Those people shown in the documentary and many other people were heartlessly victimized just because they looked suitable as ‘spies’ to be exposed in public, and it is all the more chilling and exasperating to see that government officials responsible for this are not punished at all while maintaining their impertinent façade as usual.

The director Choi Seung-ho, who has been known well as a journalist of Korea Center for Investigative Journalism (KCIJ) in South Korea, opens his documentary with the audio recording excerpt from a trial which drew lots of public attention in early 2013. In late 2012, a Korean Chinese woman named Yoo Ga-ryeo arrived in South Korea to see her older brother Yoo Woo-seong, and she was soon arrested by the agents of National Intelligence Service (NIS). Because she and her brother were born and lived in North Korea before they eventually ran away to China, NIS agents suspected that her brother, who subsequently moved to South Korea and had worked as a public servant in Seoul for years, was an undercover North Korean agent instructed to gather the information on North Korean defectors living in South Korea.

Yoo seemed to be guilty because her sister confessed to NIS agents during her interrogation, but then the situation was changed when she revealed that she gave a false testimony during the trial. According to her, she was forced to make a fake confession while incarcerated by NIS for more than 5 months without any consideration on her legal/human rights. While relentlessly bullying and manipulating her, her interrogators lied to her that it would be all right for her and her brother in the end if she just cooperated with them, and it is apparent from her haggard appearance that she has been struggling with guilt and grief since that.


Choi and his colleagues confront not only the prosecutor handling the case but also several NIS agents including the ones who interrogated Yoo’s sister, but all of these government officials keep evading them, and he does not get much result from his attempts except getting more confirmation on his reasonable doubt about Yoo’s guilty. After Yoo’s sister is eventually deported back to China, Yoo later finds himself in a more difficult circumstance thanks to the prosecution, and then there comes a certain piece of evidence which eventually surprises everyone much more than expected.

While investigating Yoo’s case, Choi comes to learn about a sad incident reminiscent of a striking violent scene in Kim Ki-duk’s recent film “The Net” (2016). A North Korean defector named Han Jong-soo killed himself while being interrogated by NIS agents, and we see his grave placed along with other lonely, abandoned graves for the dead with no family connection. Choi later meets a North Korean guy who was with Han at the NIS interrogation center, and the guy tells a bit about what happened to his ill-fated friend although he does not want to help Choi more for good reasons.

The documentary spends a significant portion of its time on reminding us that the injustice represented by Yoo Woo-seong and Han Jong-soo has continued for a long time in the South Korean society. While there were indeed numerous North Korean agents operating inside and outside South Korea, innocent people were often wrongfully labeled as North Korean spies by the South Korean government for political purposes especially during the 1960-80s, and those unfortunate people were mercilessly tortured by government agents until they gave the full admission of what they did not commit. Once the job was done, the government proudly announced its latest successful ‘investigation’, and it surely got lots of support from alarmed and scared citizens.


We meet two old Korean Japanese men who had to go through a dreadful experience like that when they were in South Korea for study during the 1970s. While one guy comes to find belated peace through his successful appeal in South Korea, the other one is still suffering a lot from his past. He became mentally broken even before he was sent to jail, and he had to spend many years around mental institutions after returning to Japan. He is now living in a cozy environment, but his fidgety appearance is heartbreaking to say the least.

Mainly consisting of the footage clips shot during Choi’s investigation process, the documentary feels rough and coarse at times, but his passion and dedication are clearly felt from the documentary, and that is exemplified well by one ambush interview scene, where he persistently throws questions to a prominent high-ranking government official who does not admit any wrongdoing at all. There is also a dramatic moment when Choi tries to make a contact with someone close to Han Jong-soo, and he admirably maintains his calm professionalism in front of the camera even though we can sense how difficult it is for him to do what should be done.

The production of “Spy Nation” was mainly funded by small donations from citizens who are acknowledged all during its end credits, and they will be glad to see that the documentary does its reporting job as well as expected. While its ending bitterly recognizes that the system has not been changed at all despite what Choi and his colleagues exposed, but its engaging journalism tale was more than enough to remind me and other audiences around me that we should not give up while hoping for the changes our society really needs at this point. Considering a recent big political scandal which is happening right now while making many of us angry and furious about our seriously corrupt and incompetent government, changes may come sooner than expected, and I sincerely hope for that despite my usual reservation.


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