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Life's Tough When You're Not a North Korean Spy

Eugene Chang started out working as a Korean translator for a film, he ended up being accused of being a North Korean spy.
May 30, 2013, 6:42am

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When This Is Spinal Tap first came out in 1984, there were probably a handful of movie goers who thought the fictional heavy metal rockers it depicted were actually a real band. And back in 1938 when Orson Welles broadcast his take on War of The Worlds disguised as radio news reports, the ensuing panic killed actual people. It’s doubtful that any of this is much comfort to Eugene Chang, the South Korean expat living in Christchurch, New Zealand who was accused of being a North Korean spy after acting in a mockumentary called Propaganda.

Written and directed by Kiwi filmmaker, Slavko Martinov, the movie’s claim of being a piece of real propaganda smuggled from North Korea exceeded its desired effect. In fact, Propaganda was so convincing, it lead to Eugene being excommunicated from his church and investigated by the South Korean embassy.

I recently chatted to Eugene to see how things were going, 10 months after the release of the fake film that turned his life upside down.

VICE: Let’s talk about how you got cast in the film. Did you know Slavko previously?
**Eugene Chang: **I met Slavko about 5 years ago. He had been working on Propaganda for 9 years and needed a Korean translator. He contacted the Korean community for advice and they recommended me as I was translating as my second job for the city council. Slavko got in touch and we had a coffee. It was quite funny; he didn’t mention anything about the project. He said he couldn’t tell me what the translation was about. I thought, “What am I doing having a coffee with this guy over a translation he can’t tell me anything about?” I respected his judgment though so we talked about other things and I recommended more ideas to do with the project. He said he would get in touch again soon but we had the earthquake, which stalled work on the project for two years. We reconnected around the beginning of last year. He said he wouldn’t tell me anything until I signed a non-disclosure agreement, so I did. Slavko was then comfortable enough to discuss the project.

So you didn’t know about the content of the film before you started working on it?
No. The non-disclosure agreement meant that even if I weren’t happy with the translation work I wouldn’t disclose anything I read. That was a reasonable sign that I didn’t know about the films content. I didn’t know anything about the film until I signed the agreement.

How did the South Korean Community react to the release of the film?
All of a sudden everyone that I knew became very cold and panicked about me being a North Korean spy. I’ve felt awkwardness with Koreans wherever I go.

You’ve been in New Zealand for a while. Are you a well-known member of the South Korean Community in Christchurch?
I don’t want to blow my own trumpet but I served the Korean community as vice president of Korean society in Christchurch. I also represented the Korean community while undertaking volunteer work and I still hold a membership to the Korean society. I sat on the board at the Korean school in Christchurch but there were complaints from parents who didn’t want their children going to a school were an accused North Korean spy sat on the board. They asked me to resign so I have suspended myself for the time being.

Do you have connections with North Korea?
All Koreans can find a connection with North Korea throughout their family history. I personally do not have any relatives living in North Korea. My mother was born in North Korea but left during the Korean War about 6o years ago with her parents and siblings.

So why all the fuss?
This film is about propaganda and it became a true story within my community. Certain opinion leaders and local have decided that I am a spy and have created rumours and misled people. It’s not everyone that thinks I am a spy but still no one accepts my comments. I have tried to put full-page advertisements in the newspapers here and they have refused me saying that it is against the good of the Korean community.

What are these rumours and why do you think people are trying to discredit you?
I don't know whether it is worthwhile to pass rumours to you but to answer your question the rumours include: 1.My father is Seong Taek Chang (2nd in power in North Korea). 2. I will not be able to go back to Korea. 3. I lead a lavish life and send my children to private school with operational funds from NK.  In fact, my children are on scholarship. I don't know whether there are any specific reasons to discredit me. However I must say there is always a group of people in every society creating rumours to gain satisfaction from discrediting others instead of working hard to catch up with them.

Rumours aside, how did the South Korea embassy find out about the film?
Somebody in the South Korean community got in touch with the South Korean Embassy after seeing the clip on YouTube. They recognized me even though my face was blurred. They reported me as a North Korean spy, which is how the authorities became aware of me. I believe that this same person spread the rumours of me being a North Korean sympathizer or spy within the community in Christchurch.

And this led to you being investigated as a North Korean spy?
I was told that I was under investigation by the relevant authorities in Korea. The Consul asked me to supply a denial of citizenship of New Zealand issued by the Internal Affairs department. This allows the Korean government to carry out investigations, as they cannot investigate foreigners.

It’s not just Koreans who are upset. ‘Propaganda’ is pretty critical of the Catholic Church. What does your church think about your involvement?
My church no longer welcomes me and has refused me communion. I filed a complaint against the church and the priest. The bishop spent some time listening to my story and said he would arrange a meeting with the priest. This hasn’t happened yet but I am looking forward to it. I was reading a script and this wasn’t my opinion but even if I was an Anti-Christian they should have given me a consultation opportunity after being with them for so many years.

That must have been tough on your family.
My children have spent most of their lives outside of Korea. We had a great laugh about the ordeal. They can’t believe what is happening and try to calm us down. For them it’ s not a big deal and they tell us that everyone is being stupid. But to myself, my wife, my mother and my sister and her family, it has become a serious problem. My wife teaches English at a language school for Koreans and other migrants. She has received abusive comments from students and has been reported to management at the school for having a North Korean spy for a husband.  It has been hard for my 80year old mother this year. She no longer goes to the Catholic Church, as she couldn’t handle the stress of it. She has lost a lot of friends. For my family, it is a disaster.

‘Propaganda’ has gotten great publicity but it has pretty much derailed your life. How is your relationship with Slavko after all this drama?
You can say the film got great publicity.  It was not planned at all.   When the situation first developed last August, Slavko risked 9 years of his work to tell the truth to the Korean Society to clear my name Slavko and I remain good friends and colleagues and respect each other. This drama can be resolved easily from reconciliation.

Knowing what you know now, would you still have acted in the film?
I’ve had this question many times. I would have had a second thought but I still would have done it I think. North Korea is only a story telling mechanism. The film is not hailing North Korea it is about propaganda which we are very exposed to so I think it’s an important story to tell the public.

Where are you at in terms of getting your life back?
Getting my life back will take a long time. Once you lose trust it is hard to gain it back. It will take a long time to get back to where my family and I were. I am trying very hard to clear my name in many ways that I cannot tell you. I don’t know whether they will work or not. I am starting a truffle farm in Korea so hopefully I can work out a better life for my family.

For more North Korea:

North Korean Film Madness

North Korean Labor Camps

North Korea Smokes Weed Everyday, Explaining a Lot