Defectors provide rare glimpses of North Korean spy operations

Kim Dong-sikTwo high-profile North Korean defectors, who used to work for the country’s spy agencies, have spoken publicly about the use of espionage by one of the world’s most impenetrable intelligence communities. Kim Dong-sik and Kang Myong-do told American television network CNN last Friday that human intelligence officers —the technical term for spy recruiters— are highly sought after in North Korea. Kim said he was selected for special-operations training while he was still in high school, and in 1981 he was admitted to an elite intelligence academy in Pyongyang. While there, he was trained in the use of firearms and explosives, as well as in martial arts and underwater diving, among other skills. CNN did not elaborate on the identity of the North Korean agency that trained Kim, but it was almost certainly the Special Operation Force of the Korean People’s Army, which is believed to be among the largest such outfits in the world.

It was only after years of training, said Kim, that he was told he was going to be a spy. Most likely, that meant he was detailed to the Reconnaissance General Bureau, a military-intelligence agency that resembles the United States Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division. He told CNN that he was not permitted to be captured alive by adversary agencies, and that his loyalty to the North Korean regime would be questioned if he failed to commit suicide at the conclusion of an aborted mission. Kim said his first mission abroad took him to South Korea, where he helped exfiltrate a North Korean intelligence officer named Lee Sun-sil, who had been working in the South as a non-official-cover operative for over a decade. His second mission involved trying to recruit South Koreans who were believed to be sympathetic toward Pyongyang. In 1995, however, he was captured alive during his third mission to South Korea, after failing to commit suicide as per his operational instructions. For that, he said, his entire family was executed back in North Korea, though his claim is admittedly difficult to verify.

CNN spoke to another high-profile North Korean defector, Kang Myong-do, son-in-law of the country’s former Prime Minister, Kang Song-san, who died in 2007. Kang, who was once described by The New York Times as “the most damaging defector ever to escape from North Korea”, used to work for the United Front Department, a civilian intelligence outfit that is subordinate to the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. He told CNN that there are probably “hundreds” of North Korean intelligence officers operating in the United States at any given point, and that their main goal is to “recruit Korean-Americans who lean towards supporting North Korea”. He added that Pyongyang sees intelligence officers as crucial assets in its confrontation with its adversaries, and that it treats them exceedingly well when they are loyal. In North Korea, “spies are treated on the same level as generals”, he said.

N. Korean dictator had army chief publicly executed, say intel sources

Hyon Yong CholBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The head of the North Korean Armed Forces was publicly executed by a firing squad using antiaircraft fire, according to a briefing by South Korean intelligence officials. Representatives from South Korea’s National Intelligence Service told reporters in Seoul last week that the execution took place on April 30 in the courtyard of a military academy in North Korean capital Pyongyang.

If the report is accurate, it would mean that Hyon Yong Chol, who led the country’s People’s Armed Forces, is no more. Hyon was considered a trusted advisor to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, who appointed him Minister of the People’s Armed Forces in the summer of 2014. Despite his impressive title, Hyon’s power was limited, as the head of the North Korean Armed Forces is largely a figurehead. True military power rests with the all-powerful Central Military Commission of the Korean Workers Party, and with the National Defense Commission, whose chairman, Kim Jong-Un, controls the military. Still, if the report of Hyon’s execution turns out to be accurate, it will point to the continuation of the power-struggle among different factions within the North Korean political and military hierarchy.

According to South Korean intelligence, Hyon was executed because he “dozed off” during a high-level meeting chaired by Kim, an act that was interpreted as proof of “disrespect and disloyalty”. However, there are suspicions that Hyon had directly challenged Kim on several occasions, and that the North Korean dictator suspected him of organizing an insurrection by members of the military. The NIS said during last week’s briefing that the execution was watched by “hundreds of senior North Korean officials” and that the firing squad made use of high-caliber artillery to kill Hyon, in order to make an example of his brutal killing.

It is worth noting that South Korean intelligence briefings on the North are not always accurate. Seoul claims that North Korean authorities have executed at least 15 senior officials in the past 12 months, among them Jang Song Thaek, uncle to the country’s leader, who was thought to be the second most powerful man in the country until his purported death in December 2013.

News you may have missed #890

Kim Kuk-giBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
►►US DEA agents given prostitutes and gifts by drug cartels. US Drug Enforcement Administration agents allegedly had “sex parties” with prostitutes hired by Colombian drug cartels overseas over a period of several years, according to a report released Thursday by the Justice Department. Former police officers in Colombia also alleged that three DEA supervisory special agents were provided money, expensive gifts and weapons from drug cartel members. Seven of the 10 DEA agents alleged to have participated in gatherings with prostitutes and received suspensions of two to 10 days.
►►Polish lieutenant accused of spying for Russia. A Polish Air Force pilot allegedly copied several thousand flight plans for F-16 fighters and handed them to Russian intelligence. According to Polish media, the airman was arrested by authorities last November, but the information has only recently emerged. The pilot was allegedly suspended from his duties, his passport was confiscated, and he was banned from leaving the country. Some reports suggest that soon after the arrest of the lieutenant, a Russian diplomat was expelled from the country for spying.
►►North Korea claims arrest of South Korean spies. North Korea said it had arrested two South Koreans engaged in espionage. The two arrested men, identified as Kim Kuk-gi (see photo) and Choe Chun-gil, were presented at a press conference in Pyongyang attended by journalists and foreign diplomats. A North Korean media report said Kim and Choe had gathered information about North Korea’s “party, state and military secrets”. It was not immediately clear where or when the two men were arrested. In Seoul, the country’s intelligence agency said the charge that the two men were working for the agency was “absolutely groundless”.

North Korean hackers operating secretly in China, says defector

Shenyang railway stationBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
An underground network of North Korean hackers are conducting complex cyberattacks against worldwide targets from Chinese cities without the knowledge of Beijing, according to a former professor who trained them. Kim Heung-Kwang was a professor of computer science in North Korean capital Pyongyang, until his defection in 2004. He told CNN on Tuesday that part of his job was training members of North Korea’s elite cyberintelligence corps, whose task was to compromise computer systems around the world. Kim alleged that some of the hackers joined a specialized outfit called Bureau 121. It was established in complete secrecy in 1995 and ten years later it began sending its operatives abroad, especially in northern China. According to Kim, Bureau 121 set up a complex network of hackers in the Chinese city of Shenyang, in northern China’s Liaoning Province. Shenyang is the largest Chinese city near North Korea, and Bureau 121 operatives were allegedly able to effortlessly blend in the sizeable Korean community there. The former professor told CNN that the hackers “entered China separately” over time, “in smaller groups […], under different titles” such as officer workers, trade company officials, or even diplomatic personnel. They operated like typical spies, working regular jobs by day and “acting on orders from Pyongyang” by night, said Kim. They gradually set up an underground “North Korean hacker hub”, operating secretly in Shenyang for several years, relocating from place to place in order to shield their activities from computer security experts. Kim told CNN that Shenyang’s bustling, money-driven life and its good Internet facilities made it easy for Bureau 121 members to work secretly on several projects that required sophisticated telecommunications infrastructure. North Korea lacks China’s telecommunications network capabilities, said Kim, which is why Pyongyang decided in the early days of the Internet to transport its hackers to Shenyang. He added that Bureau 121 has rolled back considerably its overseas operations in recent years, due to the advancement of high-speed telecommunications networks in North Korea; but some North Korean hackers are still active in northern China, he said.

North Korean commando cells may have infiltrated US in 1990s

North Korean troops in trainingBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
North Korean commandos, trained to attack large cities and nuclear installations, may have been secretly stationed on American soil in the 1990s, according to a declassified report from the United States Department of Defense’s intelligence wing. The report, dating from September 2004, was compiled by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which is America’s foremost intelligence organization concerned with military secrets. The report states that the North Korean commando cells were set up by the country’s Ministry of People’s Armed Forces under the command of its Reconnaissance General Bureau. Known as RGB, the Bureau is believed to have under its command an estimated 60,000 members of North Korea’s Special Forces. It is responsible for countless covert operations in South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere around the world, which include assassinations and kidnappings. Its most notorious action was the so-called Blue House Raid of 1968, in which a group of North Korean commandos infiltrated the South and attacked the official residence of South Korean President Park Chung-hui in an attempt to assassinate him. In 1983, RGB forces were responsible for a bomb attack in Rangoon, aimed at killing South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan during his official visit to the Burmese capital. The bomb killed 21 people, but Chun survived. According to the 2004 DIA report, the RGB established five “liaison offices” in the early 1990s, which were tasked exclusively with training a select number of operatives to infiltrate the US and remain in place until called to action by Pyongyang. They would become operational in the event of a war breaking out between America and North Korea, at which point they had been instructed to conduct raids on large US cities, sabotage nuclear power plants, etc. The DIA document states that the North Korean plan was put in place because Pyongyang had no other lethal means of reaching the US at the time. The report is significantly redacted and includes the warning that it contains raw information, meaning that it had not been cross-checked and could not be conclusively verified. Additionally, the document makes no mention of the fate of the RGB’s infiltration program and whether it continues to the present day.

Secret document sheds light on North Korean abduction operations

Choi Eun-hee and husband Shin Sang-okBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A document allegedly acquired from the government of North Korea by Western spy agencies appears to shed light on a top-secret North Korean intelligence program to kidnap dozens of foreigners in the 1970s and 1980s. That the North Korean regime engaged in systematic abduction of foreign citizens during the Cold War is not new information. International sources estimate the total number of foreign subjects abducted by North Korean intelligence to be in the dozens. They are said to include 17 citizens of Japan, as well as Chinese, South Korean, Malaysian, Italian, French and Lebanese nationals. In September 2002, during a brief period of rapprochement with Japan, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il admitted that 13 Japanese citizens had been abducted and taken to North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. They included Megumi Yakota, a 13-year-old schoolgirl who disappeared from Japan 1977 and is believed to have died while in captivity in North Korea. The most famous case of abduction is undoubtedly that of South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and her husband, the director Shin Sang-ok. The two were abducted by North Korean intelligence operatives in 1978 and taken to Pyongyang. They were then forced to lead the North Korean government’s efforts to develop its motion-picture industry. The two collaborated with the regime until 1986, when they managed to escape while on a visit to Vienna, Austria. On Wednesday, The Washington Times said it had seen a North Korean document “recently obtained” by Western intelligence agencies, which traces the history of the reclusive regime’s abduction unit and directly implicates its late leader, Kim Jong-il, in its creation. The paper cited “diplomatic sources familiar with the discovery”, in claiming that the document shows “how and why” Kim established the unit, called the Investigation Department, in 1977. The unit, known by its Korean acronym JOSABU, operated as part of the ruling Korean Party Central Committee. Its mission was to abduct foreigners, bring them to North Korea, and use them to train North Korean intelligence operatives in foreign languages and cultural knowledge. Some of the abductees were turned into spies and were sent abroad to conduct intelligence operations on behalf of the North Korean state. The document cited by The Times details two meetings, in September and October 1977, in which North Korean leader Kim instructed intelligence officials to establish JOSABU and explained the logic behind the proposed kidnappings. Apparently, Kim believed that if young foreigners were brought to North Korea and instructed for a period of up to seven years they could turn into “valuable intelligence agents who would be useful until the age of 60”. Not long afterwards, North Korean abduction teams were dispatched to various countries in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, according to the document. The paper notes that most of the abductees are believed to have been used for training purposes, propaganda activities, or dispatched abroad to conduct intelligence operations.

Spy satellites detect new nuclear weapons plant in North Korea

Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research CenterBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
A brand new nuclear weapons production plant detected by spy satellites in North Korea would enable the recluse Asian country to double its uranium-based nuclear warheads, according to intelligence sources. South Korean daily newspaper JoongAng Ilbo said the plant was detected by spy satellites equipped with infrared cameras, which are able to sense heat emissions released by gas centrifuges. The latter are essential in separating uranium-235 isotopes from the predominant uranium-238 isotope, which constitutes over 99 percent of natural uranium and cannot be weaponized. JoongAng Ilbo quotes an unnamed South Korean intelligence official, who said the data collected by the spy satellites indicate that Pyongyang has activated a new centrifuge facility inside the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center. Located approximately 60 miles north of the capital Pyongyang, Yongbyon is North Korea’s major nuclear facility, which was used to produce the fissile material for North Korea’s first nuclear weapon test in 2006. Prior to the establishment of the newly detected plant on the site, the facility was believed to contain around 2,000 centrifuges. The new facility is thought to have added significantly to North Korea’s existing capacity to enrich uranium, as it appears from its architecture and size that it contains several hundred operational centrifuges. South Korean and Western officials estimate that North Korea has the capacity to produce up to five nuclear warheads, though many doubt that the country’s nuclear engineers have been able to miniaturize the warheads so as to mount them on a long-rage delivery system. In 2012, a court in Ukraine sentenced two North Korean citizens to eight years in prison on charges of trying to obtain secret technical information about missile engines. News media contacted South Korean’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which oversees surveillance operations against the North’s nuclear program, but received no answer regarding the discovery of the new production facility.

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