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The unknown oligarch fighting for an endless Korean war

Follow the money fomenting conflict on the Korean Peninsula, and all roads lead to Annie M.H. Chan.

Reporting | Asia-Pacific

This story was co-published with The Nation.

“To President Moon Jae In and the US Congress: True Peace Can Only Come from True Freedom,” flashed the three-story-high digital advertisement in Times Square. “Hold the North Korean Regime Accountable & Free the North Korean People.” Rolling across the screen, the text continued, “H.R. 3446 and H.R. 826 Benefit North Korea and China. If Passed, the Bill Will Ultimately Dismantle the UN Command and Remove US Troops from S. Korea,” before ending next to the photo of a mushroom cloud.

Connecting the two House bills to such apocalyptic imagery last September was decidedly hyperbolic. HR 3446, the Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act, merely calls for the U.S. secretary of state to “pursue serious, urgent diplomatic engagement with North Korea and South Korea in pursuit of a binding peace agreement constituting a formal and final end to the state of war between North Korea, South Korea, and the United States.” HR 826, the Divided Family Reunification Act, would require the U.S. government to prioritize reuniting Korean Americans with family members separated after the signing of the armistice agreement in 1953, including through potential video reunions.

The opposition to these bills and the attacks against the grassroots activists who support them — many of whom are Korean American — have been led by a network of pressure groups with deep pockets, including a partnership with one of the biggest conservative political organizations in America; financial interests tied to fanning the flames of great-power competition with China; and media outlets that have amplified outlandish conspiracy theories about North Korean and Chinese interference in South Korean and U.S. elections. Yet while this network might seem broad and disparate, a close examination of the efforts opposing diplomatic initiatives with North Korea circles back to one individual who rarely speaks or appears in public: Annie M.H. Chan, a resident of Honolulu.

According to a corporate profile, Chan “developed real estate projects in excess of $1 billion in California and Hawaii.” She and her then-husband, Fred Chan, sold their 25,500-square-foot Los Altos Hills, Calif., home for $100 million in 2011, and two private foundations controlled by Chan — the Chan Family Foundation and the Everlasting Private Foundation — held a combined $18,664,694 in assets at the end of 2020.

The Times Square billboard and accompanying advertisements in The Wall Street Journal, Korea Central Daily, The Korea Times, and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser were all sponsored by One Korea Network and the Korea Conservative Political Action Conference — the South Korean branch of the Conservative Political Action Conference, which is held annually in the United States. Chan serves as the chairwoman of both OKN and KCPAC, and her Everlasting Private Foundation contributed $932,500 to the American Conservative Union, CPAC’s organizer, between 2019 and 2020.

Peace advocates who support the legislation were stunned by the aggressive response — and the financial resources behind the advertising blitz, a campaign that appeared to pop up out of nowhere. “We were really taken by surprise,” said Christine Ahn, the founder and executive director of Women Cross DMZ, a grassroots organization that supports efforts to end the Korean War and is a target of OKN’s attacks.

One Korea Network accused Ahn of “appeas[ing] a dictatorship that is keeping its own people in chains & hell-like prison” in a November tweet. “#Sanctions are in place to curb proliferation behavior & human rights abuses. Please get the facts straight.”

“Their tone is pretty intense, but that general framework about the role of sanctions in order to improve human rights is very much what’s commonplace among those types of groups,” Ahn said. “That’s not to deny there are gross human rights abuses in North Korea. But if you try to look at the impact of these sanctions, they haven’t succeeded at the denuclearization of North Korea, and they certainly haven’t done anything to improve human rights in North Korea.”

KCPAC’s first conference, held in Seoul in October 2019, featured former U.S. deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland and American Conservative Union executive director Dan Schneider. Chan co-chaired the event and delivered the keynote address.

“I think South Korea is on the verge of passing over to communist North Korea,” Chan said in her speech. Offering a dark vision of South Korea’s future, assertions of Chinese influence operations being carried out in broad daylight, and conspiracy theories about fraud in the upcoming U.S. and South Korean elections — both of which were to be held the following year — Chan’s speech was an explicit rejection of a future in which the United States and North Korea can coexist.

Speaking in Korean, Chan recited a litany of conspiracy theories about Chinese infiltration and demographic replacement. “China is using all kinds of tactics to…swallow the Republic of Korea,” she charged.

“China is a terrifying, communist country with a huge population of 1.4 billion, and they think the game is not over until they die,” Chan warned. “It is not a difficult strategy for the communist government to relocate residents to live in another country and take over the politics and economy of that country,” she said, emphasizing that “Korea is no exception.”

Following the South Korean legislative election in April 2020, in which the center to center-left Democratic Party enjoyed a landslide victory, Chan’s, KCPAC’s, and One Korea Network’s messaging took on an even more sinister tone, making baseless claims of Chinese interference and election fraud that eerily foreshadowed the allegations spread by Donald Trump’s supporters after he lost the White House seven months later.

In the summer of 2020, Chan apparently wrote a letter to then-President Trump, a fragment of which was published on Daum, a South Korean web portal, accusing South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s government of being “filled with anti-America, pro–North Korea socialists.” Chan also contributed $100,000 to Trump’s reelection efforts.

In her letter, Chan compared the U.S. presidential election to the South Korean election in April. “I would like to respectfully warn you,” she wrote, “of similar dangers regarding the up and coming elections here in the US.” The letter was also addressed to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Federal Election Commission chair James E. Trainor III.

Chan claimed that “North Korean espionage or the work of Chinese youth members of the Chinese Communist Party who live near the North Korean border” were responsible for sabotaging Trump’s June 2020 rally in Tulsa, Okla., by reserving large numbers of tickets — actions widely attributed to K-pop fans and teen users of the TikTok social media platform.

Chan concluded the letter by calling on Trump to help sound the alarm about alleged electoral fraud in the South Korean election, “enact regulations prohibiting anti-U.S. activists from entering the United States,” and “institute strong economic sanctions against all of these perpetrators.”

No substantive evidence of election fraud in South Korea has ever been presented; concerns about the vote appeared to emerge only after the decisive loss by conservatives. But Chan continued disputing the election results.

One Korea Network’s domain name was registered on April 5, 2020 — 10 days before the election — and the site published its first five articles on April 13, the first of which accused the Moon administration of “covering up the clinical information of over 10,000 COVID-19 patients.” Following the decisive win by Moon’s Democratic Party, OKN quickly pivoted to a series of articles casting doubt on the legitimacy of the results. Headlines that fall included: “Suspicions Hover Over South Korean Election,” “Two Korean Election Races Which Must Be Nullified,” “Early Voting Ballots Bundled Like a Bunch of New Bills, Including Non-Official Ballots,” “The Reason Why the Moon Administration Had to Commit Election Fraud,” and “All Manipulated Mail-In Votes in Early Voting Are Invalid!”

A 267-page report published by KCPAC in February 2021 and promoted on OKN’s website included a preface by Chan, alongside forewords by Schneider and Fred Fleitz, then the president of the notorious anti-Muslim and conspiracy-theory-promoting Center for Security Policy, compiling various claims of election fraud in South Korea and strongly suggesting that Trump’s 2020 loss was illegitimate and bore a resemblance to the South Korean election. “Allegations of election fraud are being sorely dismissed as baseless claims and unfounded conspiracy theories by the media and investigative agencies,” Chan wrote. “Yet, I am proud that we have been taking a serious scientific approach for months to expose the truth of election fraud.”

In addition to providing fuel for right-wing conspiracy mongering, Chan’s allegations that China and North Korea perpetrated election fraud in the Untied States and South Korea, like her claims about outside powers encroaching on liberal democracies on both sides of the Pacific, may have another motive: profit.

In September 2019, Chan was listed as a board member of IP3 International, according to that firm’s website. The company, which describes itself as “the lead U.S. integrator for the development and operations of peaceful and secure civil nuclear power in the global marketplace,” faced scrutiny earlier that year for its attempt to export civilian nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia via a consortium of U.S. and South Korean firms. IP3’s roster of directors is a who’s who of national security hawks — including Robert MacFarlane, Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser; John Keane, a retired four-star general and chairman of the Institute for the Study of War; Keith Alexander, a former National Security Agency director; James Cartwright, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Mike Rogers, a former Michigan representative. Though all are veteran cold warriors, none have significant experience in nuclear power generation — or in navigating U.S. laws intended to prevent the proliferation of nuclear technologies.

Earlier that year Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, released a report detailing how Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, promoted the Saudi nuclear scheme in possible violation of the Atomic Energy Act’s restrictions on the control and management of nuclear technology. A second report, issued in July 2019, revealed that IP3 had lobbied the White House to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia and sought a $120 million investment from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“Documents show that IP3 is currently pushing the Trump Administration not to require Saudi Arabia to agree to the ‘Gold Standard,’ which is a commitment not to use U.S. nuclear technology to make nuclear weapons,” read a statement released by the Oversight Committee that month. “Documents show that IP3 officials repeatedly urged White House and Trump Administration officials to abandon the ‘Gold Standard’ in any future [Section] 123 Agreement with Saudi Arabia, complaining that it would lock them out of lucrative nuclear contracts with the Saudis.”

Chan’s arrival on IP3’s board coincided with the company’s pivot to a new business model: marketing the export of nuclear technology to Europe as a critical — and, for IP3, lucrative — component of great-power competition with China and Russia.

In The National Interest last October, MacFarlane laid out his vision for the export of nuclear technologies, many of which are highly regulated: “[An] allied partnership around nuclear power would constitute a strategically important move on the geopolitical chessboard to counter China and Russia — a move that would generate myriad security benefits for the West and all those hoping to join it.”

Allied Nuclear, an IP3 subsidiary where Chan serves as director of “strategy & innovation,” warned on its website that “commercial nuclear energy companies are facing an intensified challenge from the ‘China-Russia Tandem’ as the two countries leverage nuclear energy projects to claim more territory along Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative than they could take through military force.” It recommended a “consortium-based commercial model” as a response to allow the United States, South Korea, France, and other nuclear suppliers to “regrow market shares.”

Molly J. Denham, a representative of IP3, denied that the company stood to profit from great-power rivalries and distanced it from Chan’s political activism in the United States and South Korea. “The company has had no involvement in Korean reunification or election issues in any country,” she said.

“A reduction in great-power competition anywhere in the world would be a win for people everywhere,” Denham later added. “IP3 and Allied Nuclear’s business is based on finding effective ways to draw private capital into large, carbon-free power projects that can secure prosperity and peace among stable societies.”

Chan’s involvement with the export of nuclear technology from the United States and South Korea to counter Chinese competition might be completely coincidental. But her conspiratorial statements about the dangers posed by China to the United States are entirely consistent with the business strategy undertaken by IP3, which pivoted to warning about the Chinese threat after Chan’s arrival on its board and after failing in its bid to export sensitive technology to Saudi Arabia.

Chan’s One Korea Network appears to echo the perspectives of IP3 and Allied Nuclear, cheering South Korean plans to export nuclear power technology and to maintain the country’s existing nuclear technology. A May 2021 OKN article quoted an anonymous official at the South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy. “There is a demand for nuclear power plants in the Middle East and Europe. If [South Korea and the United States] enter the market together, it will help them gain an advantage in the competition to win new contracts to build foreign nuclear power plants,” the official said. As OKN stressed, “This will put the brakes on China and Russia that are winning most contracts on new nuclear power plants.”

Another OKN article that month, reporting on the Moon government’s decision to move away from nuclear power for safety reasons, was headlined: “South Korea Stumbles Toward Nuclear Phase-Out in Favor of Questionable Wind Power Projects.” In June, OKN again blasted the Moon administration with an article stating that the phaseout would ultimately be paid for using “citizen’s [sic] electricity bills.” The article concluded with the caveat that “the trade ministry, for its part, said it does not plan on raising electricity bills yet.”

While the political activities undertaken by Chan, KCPAC, and OKN seem to be highly partisan in nature, OKN and IP3 haven’t completely closed the door to influencing the Biden administration. And the White House has already begun one initiative that OKN and IP3 can support. In April 2021, the State Department announced a $5.3 million program to enable the deployment of small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) and to provide “capacity-building support to partner countries as they develop their nuclear energy programs to support clean energy goals under the highest international standards for nuclear safety, security, and nonproliferation.”

Four months earlier, IP3 had predicted the Biden administration’s support for SMRs and praised the reactors as a tool for competing against Russia and China. “As a cheaper, smaller and scalable alternative to larger light water reactors, SMRs also help sovereign governments avoid falling for the lure of debt-trap boondoggles built by Russia and China,” it said in a press release. And in May, OKN published an article — “The U.S. Is Working With South Korea to Restore Its Position as the Leading Nuclear Power” — detailing the potential for U.S.– South Korean cooperation in exporting nuclear reactors: “There is also a possibility that South Korea and the U.S. may cooperate in the field of [the] Small Modular Reactor…which is the next-generation nuclear power plant in the industry.”

OKN has weighed in on North Korea as well. Hyun-seung Lee, a North Korean defector who is a director at OKN, told NK News that the Biden administration can work to improve human rights in North Korea and bring Pyongyang closer to denuclearization by doubling down on sanctions and pressure tactics. “The carrot will not work on [North Korean leader Kim Jong Un],” Lee said. “America needs to know that the stick is more effective.” OKN, KCPAC, and Chan did not respond to requests for comment.

Fearmongering about Chinese aggression and influence, promoting the use and export of nuclear power technology, and maintaining a militarized U.S.-South Korea alliance all serve Chan’s ideological and business interests. And her business and political agenda may benefit from the growing anti-China sentiment in both U.S. political parties — and an increased framing in Washington of U.S.-China relations in the context of great-power competition.

Working through IP3, OKN, and KCPAC, Chan has created a clever echo chamber for the promotion of great-power competition with China and conspiracy theories about left-wing victories in the South Korean and U.S. elections. But public opinion in both the United States and South Korea is tilting decidedly against her cause.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans age 18 to 29 believe “the United States should respond to China’s rise by decreasing the US troop presence in Asia, a seven percent increase from last year,” a Eurasia Group Foundation poll found in September. The survey also found that 58 percent of Americans want to increase U.S. diplomatic engagement with the world.

Meanwhile, nearly 70 percent of South Koreans agree with President Moon’s proposal to end the Korean War, according to a September poll conducted by the National Unification Advisory Council.

Chan appears to be borrowing from a well-worn playbook in her efforts to inject money into the U.S. political system to generate personal profits — while also influencing elite opinion to steer foreign policy in a militaristic direction in East Asia. Whether her efforts will be successful is still an open question. Public opinion may be moving in the direction of increased U.S. diplomacy and a reduction of the U.S. military footprint in the region. But thanks largely to Chan, a concerted and well-funded campaign is underway to maintain the costly status quo.

Illustration by Ryan Inzana.
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