Red star over Flushing: Just how menacing was John Liu’s impolitic, departed aide, really?

John Liu with the mayor. Inset: John Choe. (Azi Paybarah/Facebook)
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Last month, a longtime aide to John Liu left his position as the comptroller’s policy director. The New York Post declared victory.

“Guess Comptroller John Liu is serious about a mayoral run,” read an editorial headlined “Liu’s cashiered comrade.” “He’s kicked to the curb a longtime aide too toxic even for famously liberal New York.”

The aide, John Choe, popped up again in a Post editorial this week entitled "John Liu's Mystery Money." The "mystery" alluded to in this editorial actually had nothing to do with Choe, but instead referred to a Times report on some of Liu's contributions and his system of accounting for them.

But in a paragraph about Liu aide Chung Seto, the Post came back, again, to Choe:

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"Seto is hardly the only creepy-crawly Liu's taking along for the ride. He secretly hired as his policy chief the communist activist John Choe, who in his spare time heads a pro-North Korea propaganda group allegedly run by Pyongyang. Liu fired Choe last month only after a damning report in The Post. (You're welcome.)"

The comptroller’s office says that the Post’s recent series about a man the paper has called an "apologist for communist North Korea” had nothing whatsoever to do with Choe’s departure.

“John Choe resigned to accept a new position at Asian Americans for Equality,” said Matt Sweeney, Liu’s spokesman, in an emailed statement. “He left of his own accord. He gave notice on August 4th. His last day was September 30th.”

Above all, the story about Choe is odd, and seems like something that would usually be the exclusive province of the Epoch Times, a Falun Gong-affiliated newspaper that has for years waged a lonely editorial campaign accusing Liu, since back when he was a mere city councilmember, of being an agent of the Chinese Communist Party. (Liu was born in Taiwan, grew up in Queens, and doesn't speak Chinese.)

So that would be one explanation of the whole Choe affair: that Kim Jong-Il, until last week, had a line into the New York City comptroller's office.

Another is that Choe is an idealistic, slightly credulous South Korean expat who never quite shed his campus radicalism when it comes to the affairs of his homeland but who is, first and foremost, a hard-working New York political aide; and maybe Liu just never cared much about what Choe did on the side, as long as he did his day-job well and the North Korea stuff never got to be inconvenient.

One longtime associate of Liu pointed to the longevity of the comptroller's association with Choe: They both went to Binghamton University, and have been friends for two decades. Liu was eminently comfortable with Choe, and anyway, the associate guessed, Liu was simply too preoccupied with the never-ending grind of politics to consider the transactional consequences of his aide's random Korea-centric side projects, at least until the Post, finally, made them unignorable.

"Look at his fund-raising activities," said the associate, referring to Liu's long list of questionable campaign donations, as outlined in the Times. "He doesn’t have the self-reflection."

In one respect, at least, the version of events from the comptroller's office seems to check out. Emails from August, shared with Capital, indicate that Choe and the executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, where Choe is going to work, were discussing his October start-date back in early August, well before the most recent series of Post articles.

Certainly, it's somewhat unusual for a political aide to be so openly sympathetic toward the existing regime in North Korea and so starkly critical of U.S. policy there. But presumably, given how little the issue has to do with city-level political office, most voters who knew about it would have found it more odd than anything else.

It's not even entirely clear how it would have played with voters who are especially interested in policy toward Korea. There are about 50,000 voters with Korean surnames in New York City, according to Jerry Skurnik, a partner in the political consultancy Prime New York and an expert on election demographics. The strength of feeling among those voters about the issue of Korean reunification tends to vary roughly according to age.

“Although the vast majority of Korean Americans, especially the older generation, take a conservative and hardline position toward the North, some Korean Americans are more in favor of accommodation and engagement with the North,” said Charles K. Armstrong, a professor of history and director of Columbia’s Center for Korean Research, in an email from Seoul. “This does not necessarily mean the latter are ‘pro-North Korean,’ much less that they are ‘agents’ of Pyongyang, but sometimes they are accused as such. Emotions on this issue can run very high.”

BUT JOHN CHOE’S OUTSPOKENNESS ON KOREAN POLITICS, and on U.S. involvement in Korea, is nothing new.

In 1999, he helped found a community-development organization called Nodutdol, which is Korean for “stepping stone.” The organization’s mission, according to its website, is “to contribute to a global people’s struggle against war and militarism as part of a Korean struggle for national unification and democracy, and as part of a U.S.-based peoples’ struggle for racial, social and economic justice in New York City.”

As part of that mission, the group organizes trips to North Korea. It's what the group calls its "Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Exposure & Education Program."

“Because of the biased and negative portrayal of north Korea by the US government and mainstream media, most of us [even Koreans who are already committed to social justice], are poorly informed about the DPRK,” reads the program description available on the site. “This program helps to demystify the DPRK, and build person to person understanding. To organize in this collective, socialist society.”

North Korea is, of course, widely known to be one of the most repressive regimes in existence. It is a dictatorship that keeps hundreds of thousands of its citizens imprisoned in gulag-like conditions, complete with slave labor and public executions. In October, the world’s three biggest human-rights organizations called for a United Nations inquiry into North Korea’s crimes against humanity.

Stories on John Choe and Korean-American opposition to his political proclivities date back to 2003, when Choe was already working as an aide for then-councilman Liu.

That year, Nodutdol made news when its plans to hold an anti-war teach-in at the Korean American Association of Greater New York blew up in the face of opposition from Korean-Americans and the South Korean Consulate in New York, which claimed Nodtudtol was a surrogate for North Korea. The event was cancelled. Neither the consulate nor the Korean American Association responded to requests for comment for this article. And neither did Choe: He didn't respond to emails or phone messages and eventually declined, through an intermediary, to comment.

"I have no problem to lend them my space, if they are not doing anything anti-American,” Andrew Kim, the Association’s president at the time, told The New York Times. “But everyone here is concerned about America and Korea. We don't want people to hate us. We are not fully Americanized yet."

In the article, Choe countered that the move was "typical McCarthyism and misplaced fear.”

"People who have any kind of opposition to the U.S. military's policy are being marginalized as anti-American,” he told the Times. “It's censorship."

In November of that same year, the Times' Robert Worth followed up on the story, detailing a series of intimidating and anonymous phone calls placed to Choe’s parents claiming their son was in the employ of Pyongyang.

“Mr. Choe, 33, a community organizer from Queens, says he is not a spy,” wrote Worth. “But to some in the city's large Korean community, he is something just as bad: a ‘sympathizer’ who helped found a group that arranges trips to North Korea and features on its Web site a glowingly positive account of that country and its communist dictator.”

"There's a pretty mean streak of McCarthyism out there," Liu told the Times, in Choe’s defense.

In 2006, Choe made a speech that, coupled with his Nodutdol affiliation, has earned him unflattering press attention. The setting was a forum on global socialism. (Audio of the speech is here.)

“Korea is at the frontlines of the liberation struggles against imperialism,” said Choe. “From the very beginning, when the U.S. intervened and occupied Korea, the Korean people have been resisting and struggling. And I urge all of you here to help us in our dark days trying to win back our freedom and independence from the United States and its military.”

Choe went on to rail against South Korea's free-trade agreement with the United States, then under negotiation, and made repeated references to “peasants” rising up against the imperialists.

“Next month, from June 4 to 9, Korean peasants, workers and activists are going to bring the war against imperialism to the belly of the beast and stage protests in D.C.,” he said.

He added, “Myself as an immigrant and a byproduct of U.S. imperialism, I hope you can help me bring down imperialism through this event and many other events in the future."

It was language that might not have been out of place on the campus of a liberal arts college. But the words were unusual in an American political context, and no less unusual in a Korean-American context.

Michael Kulma, executive director of Global Leadership Initiatives at the Asia Society, said: "Is that one viewpoint within the South Korean political dialogue? Yes. But I think that’s a very small fringe piece of the dialogue between the U.S. and South Korea."

JOHN CHOE WAS BORN IN SEOUL. WHEN he was 15, his family emigrated to Staten Island, according to a (positive) 2003 Newsday mini-profile. He attended Susan E. Wagner High School on Staten Island.

His parents operated a grocery store and fish market on Targee Street. When John and his brother were not in school, they helped out in the store. The business ended up failing, prompting Choe’s mom to take work at a nail salon. Last year she died of cancer, something Choe blames on the chemicals she worked with on the job.

After graduating from high school, Choe enrolled in Binghamton University, majoring in history. It was the start of a long academic career. He has since been awarded a Woodrow Wilson fellowship in public affairs and international relations, a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Chicago, a fellowship in public affairs with the Coro New York Leadership Center, and a Revson Fellowship from Columbia University. As part of his Coro fellowship, he worked on projects at the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission, and the New York City public advocate’s office, among other offices.

People who have worked with Choe describe him as an intellectually focused policy wonk, a nice guy, and a competent legislative aide and community organizer.

One Queens elected official drew a contrast between Choe's role as a background policy expert and Liu's front-and-center electoral ambitions.

"I always felt that he wasn’t the perfect match for John Liu, because as hard of a worker as Liu is, he’s very campaign-oriented," said the elected official. "John Choe was more academic and policy-oriented."

Choe's thoughts on North Korea, said the official, were apparent from the beginning, and widely known in the community. They never appeared to be an issue for Liu before, and the official suspects that they still aren't.

"I don’t really believe he was let go because of the North Korean thing, because it’s always been an issue from day one," said the official.

When Liu ran for city comptroller in 2009, his chief of staff, Choe, decided to run for the Council seat Liu was vacating. In July of that year, the Post ran a fairly mild story about Choe’s comments at the socialist forum. Choe lost the race and the story withered along with his campaign.

When Liu won the comptroller’s seat and took office in January 2010, he appointed Choe as his policy director. The story came back last month, in the Post.

The paper followed up last week by reporting that the organization to which Choe is going, Asian Americans for Equality, has "red roots."

“Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, AAFE and the now-defunct Communist Workers Party shared offices, phone lines and leaders,” said the Post (which after all has its own red roots, if you go back far enough).

The AAFE is a well-established community-service organization that helped launched the careers of Councilwoman Margaret Chin and Oakland mayor Jean Quan. Choe's job will be to handle economic development issues, serving as a liaison to small-business owners in Flushing, and will work to ensure that larger businesses investing in the neighbohood hire locally. And as far as anyone knows, that's it.

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