Did Outside Spy Agencies Know About Kim Jong Il’s Death?

Kim Jong Il lies in state in PyongyangBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS* | intelNews.org |
According to KCNA, North Korea’s state news agency, Premier Kim Jong Il died at 8:30 am on Saturday, December 17. However, government media did not announce the startling news until early Monday morning, that is, nearly 50 hours after the “Dear Leader’s” sudden passing. Assuming that North Korean reports of the time and location of Kim’s death are truthful, the inevitable question for intelligence observers is: did anyone outside North Korea receive news of Kim Jong Il’s death during the 50 hours that preceded its public announcement? In times like this, most Westerners tend to look at the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, MI6, DGSE, or any of the other recognizable acronyms that dominate American and European news reports. The reality is, however, that despite their often-mythical status, Western intelligence agencies tend to be limited in their global reach, which is usually heavily concentrated on selected adversaries, like Russia, or China. These agencies therefore tend to rely on their regional allies to get timely and accurate information on smaller nations that are often difficult to penetrate. In the case of North Korea, Western spy agencies depend heavily on actionable intelligence collected by South Korean and Japanese spies.

How much did the Japanese and South Koreans know about the dramatic weekend events in Pyongyang? Absolutely nothing, judging by the actions of their national governments during the 50 hours between Kim Jong Il’s death and its announcement. In fact, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak departed on a state visit to Japan about four hours after his North Korean counterpart had expired, and returned to Seoul a day later, just in time for a cocktail gala held in honor of his 70th birthday. It was early next morning that the South Korean and Japanese governments went into emergency overdrive in response to the Kim’s death. These events show that the United States was also in the dark about the developments in the North Korean capital, because it is unthinkable that Washington would have refrained from sharing such seismic news with its two closest allies in Asia. This lack of intelligence was later acknowledged by senior South Korean cabinet officials, including Won Sei-hoon, Director of the country’s National Intelligence Service, who admitted that his agency was notified of Kim Jong Il’s passing from television.

Some claim that Chinese intelligence may have been the first outside North Korea to know about the “Dear Leader’s” demise; but if this is so, then they were able to conceal it with remarkable effectiveness, since Western envoys and intelligence operatives observed no unusual political or military maneuvers in Beijing. In fact, in recent months, Chinese intelligence officials were reportedly telling their Western counterparts that Kim Jong Il’s health was improving. Even German intelligence, which arguably possessed the most accurate information on the North Korean leader’s medical condition, was caught by surprise. The Germans would have clearly been in a position to know, because members of the “Dear Leader’s” family have been frequent visitors to medical centers in former East Berlin since the 1950s. But apparently nothing was communicated to the German government, not even from the small armies of German doctors who frequently travel to North Korea to treat the country’s communist party elite.

Adding insult to injury for foreign spies, it appears that the first indications outside North Korea that Kim Jong Il was dead came 20 minutes prior to the official statement by Pyongyang, from a group of North Korean defectors living in Seoul. This demonstrates that there are ways of getting information out of North Korea through informal communication networks, but that outside intelligence agencies have yet to figure them out. Doing so requires fare more than defector intelligence or technical collection, such as satellite reconnaissance or communications interception. Information provided by defectors —of whom Korea has no shortage— is often erratic and consciously distorted. Satellite reconnaissance provides valuable indications of military maneuvers, but is useless in revealing political intelligence. And the interception of communications is ineffective when directed at countries like North Korea, where the compartmentalization of information reigns supreme, where interpersonal culture values subtlety and innuendos, and where sensitive information is rarely discussed in non-face-to-face settings.

Acquiring actionable, high-quality intelligence from North Korea, including from the highest echelons of the Korean People’s Army, requires human intelligence sources —actual spies placed in critical posts inside the North Korean deep state. Considering the elevated geopolitical significance of the Korean Peninsula, it would be foolish to suggest that South Korean and other foreign intelligence agencies have been unable to penetrate the North Korean government. But the astonished reaction by Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo, at the news of Kim Jong-Il’s death on Monday, would seem to indicate that, for the time being, Pyongyang’s powerful inner circle of state apparatchiks remains shielded from outside penetration.

* Dr Joseph Fitsanakis coordinates the Security and Intelligence Studies program at King College, USA. He is Senior Editor of intelNews.

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5 Responses to Did Outside Spy Agencies Know About Kim Jong Il’s Death?

  1. Kidd says:

    then again, the agency may have known , but didn’t wish to tip their hand and possible expose a inside source. this reminds me of the time when the captured sailors of the pueblo were giving
    secret hand signals while posing for a photo, only to have the secrecy blown when some idiot civilian blabbed about the hand signals to the press and thus the sailors got the crap beat out of them. the hand signals were secret for a reason, and not for everyone’s information pleasure.
    possible true again with the death news. i also hope that idiot who spilled the beans , understood that by blabbing , he got those men hurt very badly. we don’t want to see that now, it would be hard labor or a bullet for a very resourceful source

  2. intelNews says:

    I considered that possibility, but I believe nobody in their right mind would have Lee going to Japan at the time when he did. He could find an acceptable reason to change his schedule and stay in ROK, since it was just a one-day visit. If Washington knew, it didn’t share the information with Seoul, maybe fearing it might be accessed by North Korea –but, one can argue, that would be even worse than not knowing! [JF]

  3. Gerald C. says:

    That reminds me of the movie THIRTEEN DAYS when JFK wants to cancel his visit to Chicago b/c of the missile crisis, but Mayor Daley doesn’t let that happen. haha.

    If 2MB had found a plausible explanation for canceling the Japan trip, perhaps the Japanese would’ve thought the Koreans cancelled to insult them b/c of the whole war rape issue that was in the news last week. Of course, the Japanese would’ve known that was not the case after the news about Kim Jong-il broke, but then the North would’ve also known that they have a leak. And as the article says, their info is compartmentalized, so the source would’ve been narrowed down.

  4. Ert Zog says:

    Duh, with NK about to turn upside down… the safest place for President Lee, until a stable announcement was verified as imminent, was as far from Seoul as possible.

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