Though few in number, North Korean loyalists in Los Angeles are dedicated and prolific in their public adulation of the brutal dictatorship, now flexing its muscles as a nuclear power. Woven into their Korean-language propaganda is the idea that Jews manipulate the international order, turning it against their beloved tyrant, Kim Jong Un.
At least two L.A.-based contributors to a local, pro-North Korean website, Lee Insook and Yai Joung-woong, are using the platform to spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Similar groups based on the East Coast and abroad also participate in spreading outlandish stereotypes of Jews, drawing on age-old tropes such as “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
“The black shadow government of the United States Jews is said to approve a civil war on the Korean peninsula,” Yai wrote in May on the Korean-language propaganda site Minjok Tongshin (minjok.com), which translates to “National Communication.”
With its ever-expanding nuclear program and missiles now judged powerful enough to reach the United States, North Korea has become a top policy concern for the Donald Trump administration as it searches for strategies to thwart its nuclear ambitions.
The country has grabbed recent headlines through high-profile missile tests and by repatriating a comatose Jewish American, Otto Warmbier, who had been imprisoned for more than a year. He died shortly after he was released to his family in Ohio.
Meanwhile, North Korea’s apologists in Los Angeles have been busy singing its praises.
Yai, a naturalized American citizen who pled guilty in 2003 to acting as an unregistered agent of the North Korean government and served two years in prison, currently resides in Los Angeles.
Speaking by phone through an interpreter, he said he has a “certain respect for Jewish people,” adding that “they are brilliant, they are easy to understand and they are very liberal.”
Rather than originating the conspiracy theories, he said he mostly reads them on blogs based in China and merely repeats them, saying that he has a “tendency to not believe, but to follow the stories.”
He said that while he doubts that Jews secretly manipulate world events, he nonetheless believes Jews wield a great deal of power in the United States and worries they could use that power to the detriment of North Korea, which he admits he holds in high regard.
Lee, a nurse, lives in Torrance.
Writing on Minjok Tongshin, she has asserted that Israeli Jews are responsible for the creation of the Islamic State and that Jews in general are a Satanic race.
“The God of the Jewish race created by Israel does not really exist, but is an abstraction and a devil which has made the world a living hell,” she wrote recently on Minjok Tongshin in an article titled “Demons hate the work of angels.”
Lee could not be reached for comment.
Roh Kilnam, who runs Minjok Tongshin out of his Glendale home, distanced himself from the two writers while defending their freedom of speech.
He said in a telephone interview they were “just freelancers,” but declined to say whether he had reviewed the anti-Semitic material before it was published.
Asked if he stood by the writers, he said, “We don’t support the content, but there’s freedom of press, you know. They have their own ideas and their own right to express.”
But Roh appears to enjoy a close relationship with both contributors.
After Yai was imprisoned, Roh visited him at the Taft Correctional Institution in Kern County. Yai has since appeared as a keynote speaker at events organized by Minjok Tongshin.
Lee wrote more articles than any other contributor in 2014 and 2015, and Roh presented her with an award for her writing, the website reported.
Roh declined to answer additional questions and hung up after a three-minute conversation.
A Facebook page in his name posted a laudatory statement last week about North Korea’s July 4 test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, which read in part, “The test launch did not have any negative effects on the world’s safety and the safety of the surrounding countries.”
Roh’s website speaks frequently in adoring tones about North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Un. The editor has claimed in media interviews to have visited the rogue state dozens of times. During a visit in 2014, he received the Kim Il-Sung Prize, named for the country’s founding leader.
Lawrence Peck, an L.A.-based expert on pro-North Korean activism in the United States, said Minjok Tongshin has “direct, strong, ongoing ties to the highest levels of the North Korean regime.”
He said the ties most likely run through North Korea’s United Nations mission. Requests for comment by the mission were not returned before deadline.
Peck, who is Jewish and earns his living trading stocks, has spent more than two decades monitoring groups and individuals who either openly or covertly work to advance North Korean interests in the United States. He called his watchdog activities “a 24-hour hobby” that often involve media interviews and speaking trips to South Korea.
He said anti-Semitism among overtly pro-North Korean elements such as Minjok Tongshin is widespread, though it goes mostly unnoticed by the Jewish community.
“Because it’s only in Korean, it flies under everyone’s radar,” he said in an interview at a Koreatown coffee shop.
Peck brought the issue to the attention of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a local human rights group.
In 2014, during a flare-up of anti-Semitism in pro-North Korean media tied to Israel’s incursion into Gaza, the Wiesenthal Center issued a statement condemning the rhetoric. It pointed to anonymous comments posted on Minjok Tongshin message boards, such as, “Is there any difference between Jews and Nazis? No. No. No.” and “It is beyond doubt that Jews control the U.S. media.”
In a recent interview with the Journal, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, said that while North Korean anti-Semitism wasn’t an immediately pressing issue, “I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.”
“Korean Americans and Jewish Americans have a good relationship,” he said. “If you have a steady flow of invective that comes down, that spills over into part of the overall scenario here in California. It’s not something we would like to see happen, to say it mildly.”
The pro-North Korean community seems to account for a relatively small number of Korean Americans.
“There are over a half million Korean Americans in Southern California. Mostly they are pro-South Korea and pro-USA,” Korean-American journalist Tom Byun wrote in an email. “Among them, it is a small group that has pro-North opinions.”
Byun, who spent four decades as the editor of America’s largest Korean daily newspaper, the L.A.-based Korea Times, added that most Korean Americans hold favorable views toward Jews, and relatively few frequent sites like Minjok Tongshin.
“Many Koreans in America do not know of the existence of the Minjok Tongshin site,” he wrote. “Ordinary people of LA Koreatown do not recognize the names of Roh Kilnam, Insook Lee and Yai Joung-woong.”
But Minjok Tongshin is not alone among U.S.-based, pro-North Korean groups that engage in anti-Semitic rhetoric. A group called the Korean American National Coordinating Council (KANCC) wrote in a July 3 Korean-language statement that “American politics serves exclusively to benefit Jews and capitalists.”
One of the leaders of KANCC is Kil-sang Yoon, a Methodist minister in the Inland Empire’s Moreno Valley. Lee also contributes frequently to KANCC’s website, sometimes reposting the same articles on Minjok Tongshin.
The roots of Jew-hatred among pro-North Korean elements appear to be various.
One reason for the rhetoric, Cooper said, is North Korea’s alignment with anti-Israel elements such as the Iranian and Syrian regimes and the Hezbollah terrorist group.
Peck echoed Cooper’s reasoning, adding that pro-North Korean elements in the United States tend to ally themselves with far-left groups critical of Israel’s government.
Pro-North Korean anti-Semitism could also come from a general tendency to believe conspiracy theories, he said: Someone who mistakes a brutal dictatorship that starves and tortures its own people for a humanistic and benevolent government may be willing to adopt other peculiar ideas as well, such as Jews controlling the world order.
“Whenever you’re dealing with fringe elements, nuts, extremists, you always find that anti-Semitism is present,” Peck said.
Although careful not to overstate the impact of anti-Semitism from pro-North Korean websites on the Korean-American community at large, he said they can sometimes wield influence on the margins.
“There are people who are reading this garbage, and they are being influenced more so than if these sites didn’t exist and they didn’t see that rhetoric — because they wouldn’t necessarily go to the Stormfront neo-Nazi page,” he said, referencing the nation’s most popular white supremacist website. “But if it’s in Korean, they’re more likely to see it.”