KOBE — For nearly 20 years, Cho Ryu Un, a Korean resident of Japan born and raised in Kobe, lived a double life. To friends and business partners, he was a normal businessman, albeit connected with the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon).
But from 1970 to 1989, Cho said, he was known in North Korean intelligence circles as “Blacksnake,” a trusted secret agent who provided his bosses with everything from French cognac and perfume to maps of the Sea of Japan coast. In addition, Blacksnake was a contact for North Korean agents who slipped into Japan, a man who would provide money and cover.
Most important, though, was Blacksnake’s role in funneling cash from Japan to the North Korean government.
“During my 20 years as a spy, I sent about 6.2 billion yen, through a variety of channels, to North Korea,” Cho said in a recent interview. “The money came from Korean residents of Japan with relatives in the North and my own real estate business.”
Even that amount is just a fraction of the total Cho said was secretly sent to North Korea.
“From the mid-1970s, a campaign began in North Korea to encourage Japanese-Koreans to visit their relatives. When they went, usually by ferry from Niigata port, they took between 1 million yen and 2 million yen per trip,” Cho said.
Another method, he said, was to have those visitors buy commemorative medallions ranging in price from 30 million yen to 100 million yen from the North Korean government.
“I believe perhaps 2 trillion yen in total was sent to North Korea from the mid-1970s onward,” he said, although emphasizing it was impossible to come up with an accurate figure.
According to Cho, Chongryon is under the direct guidance of the (North) Korean Workers’ Party, in which there are two major departments — the Reunification Front and the Department of Southern Affairs.
“The former is semisecret, and the latter is completely secret. Chongryon is under the Reunification Front,” he said.
The Department of Southern Affairs is completely independent and has no influence on Chongryon, Cho said, adding that the department and the North Korean military are the only two organizations that send agents to Japan and collect money.
Because of his education, which includes a law degree at Kwansei Gakuin University, and his involvement during and after college with Chongryon, Cho said he came to the attention of North Korean agents.
“In 1970, I was instructed by a (Chongryon) member to go to Niigata and board the ferry. There were six secret cabins in the bottom of the vessel and I went to the first one. When I opened the door, there was the vice general director of the Department of Southern Affairs, who told me to become a spy,” he said.
His work was to gather information on Japan, recruit South Korean agents, guide North Korean agents who slipped into Japan, collect money and teach the philosophy of then supreme leader Kim Il Sung.
Cho claimed his work did not involve abducting or attempting to abduct any Japanese. But in 1985, he learned from the vice general director that a Kobe man, Minoru Tanaka, had been kidnapped.
“I was told Tanaka was sent from Japan to Vienna, then to Moscow, and then to Pyongyang, where he was working as a translator and had a wife and child,” Cho said.
Hyogo Prefectural Police would not comment on the Tanaka case or Cho’s story, other than to confirm that Tanaka was a short-order cook who disappeared in 1978 at age 28. He is not on the list of 10 Japanese who Tokyo believes were abducted by North Korean agents.
It was also around 1985 that Cho began making secret trips to North Korea, via Beijing, where he briefed military officials on his activities. Although under heavy guard and not allowed to interact with civilians, Cho said he saw enough to become discouraged.
“People in the villages weren’t getting enough to eat. Corruption among the soldiers was rampant and many of them stole food. Only the high-level officers in Pyongyang had a good life,” he said.
Cho said that doubts about his work, which had been growing since the mid-1970s, forced him to make a decision. He stopped all spying activities in 1989.
Cho said Japanese authorities suspected he was a spy and he was questioned on two occasions but never arrested.
Today, many of the spy organizations that existed during the 1970s and 1980s have been dismantled, Cho said. He believes there are now only a small number of agents in Japan, mainly involved with spying on American military installations.
As to his past, Cho expressed profound regret to the public, to police and to the families of those believed to have been abducted. “I became a spy because I believed, like the North Koreans themselves, that Kim Il Sung had created a communist utopia. I was stupid for not realizing the truth.”