South Korean spy agency says North Korean nuclear negotiators were not executed

Kim Jong-unThe spy agency of South Korea has dismissed media reports that North Korea had several of its top nuclear negotiators executed or sent to labor camps, but has not rejected rumors of a major reshuffle in Pyongyang. In early June, media reports in Seoul claimed that North Korea had executed at least five of its senior nuclear negotiators and imprisoned several others. Prior to these reports, rumors of executions of North Korean nuclear negotiators had circulated in international diplomatic circles since February, but no specific allegations had surfaced in the news media. That changed when Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s highest-circulation newspaper, alleged that at least five executions of nuclear negotiators had taken place in Pyongyang in March.

The paper claimed that the most senior North Korean official to be executed was Kim Hyok-chol, who led the nuclear negotiations with Washington prior to the Vietnam summit. The summit culminated with a —seemingly fruitless— face-to-face meeting between the North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump. Citing an “anonymous source” Chosun Ilbo said that Kim had been executed by a firing squad at the Pyongyang East Airfield in Mirim, a suburb of the North Korean capital. Four other Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials were executed at the same time, allegedly for having been “swayed by American imperialists to betray the Supreme Leader”, said the newspaper. Two more senior North Korean nuclear negotiators, Kim Yong-chol and Kim Song-hye, were allegedly stripped of their government posts and sent to labor camps, according to the report.

On Tuesday, however, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) directly contradicted Chosun Ilbo’s account. The spy agency told a closed-door meeting with members of parliament in Seoul that Kim Yong-chol had made recent appearances at senior-level events of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), and that Kim Hyok-chol was still alive. But the NIS did not rule out the possibility of a major reshuffle among the ranks of Pyongyang’s nuclear negotiators and the replacement of some of the top figures with new officials from the ranks of the WPK. Most international observers agree that Kim Jong-un is displeased with the impasse in the nuclear negotiations with Washington and has criticized —in some cases publicly— the performance of his team of negotiators.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 July 2019 | Permalink

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Swiss to extradite brother of ‘leading biochemist’ who spied for Chinese firm

GlaxoSmithKlineA Swiss court has ordered the extradition to the United States of the brother of one of the world’s leading biochemists, who spied on a British pharmaceutical firm to help a Chinese startup. The extradition is part of a large corporate espionage case centered on Yu Xue, a Chinese scientist described by US federal prosecutors as “one of the world’s top protein biochemists”. Yu specializes in drug research for cancer and other serious terminal illnesses. From 2006 until 2016 he worked in the US for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a leading British pharmaceutical group.

In 2018, Yu was arrested by US authorities for stealing trade secrets from a GSK research facility in the US state of Pennsylvania, and giving them to a Chinese startup pharmaceutical company called Renopharma. He eventually pleaded guilty to stealing proprietary data from GSK, in a case that the US Department of Justice described as a textbook example of Chinese “economic warfare” against America. US government prosecutors also claim that Renopharma is almost wholly funded the Chinese government. The three co-founders of the Chinese firm have also been charged with corporate espionage targeting a US firm.

On May 28 Yu’s brother, Gongda Xue, was arrested in Basel, Switzerland. According to the US government, Gongda used GSK data stolen by his brother to carry out drug experimentation at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research, where he worked as a post-doctoral trainee between 2008 and 2014. On Tuesday, the Swiss Federal Office of Justice (FOJ), ruled in favor of a request by the US government to extradite Gongda so he can be tried in Pennsylvaia. According to the FOJ, the Chinese scientist will be extradited as soon as his 30-day appeal period expires.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 17 July 2019 | Permalink

Italian police find ‘combat-ready’ air-to-air missile in raids on far-right groups

Air to air missile ItalyPolice in Italy have found an air-to-air missile in “perfect working order” alongside dozens of guns during raids on homes belonging to members of far-right groups. The raids took place in several northern Italian cities and were coordinated by the Digos, a special unit of the Turin Municipal Police that deals with organized crime and terrorism. Aside from Turin, synchronized raids took place in Varese, Novara, Forli and Milan. According to reports in the Italian media, the raids were part of a large-scale investigation into an extensive network of Italian far-right groups whose members provided logistical and material support to Russian-backed separatists in southeastern Ukraine.

At least three men were arrested in connection with the raids, two of them in Forli and one in Galarate, a small town near Varese on the Italian-Swiss border. They were named as Alessandro Monti, 42, a Swiss national, and Fabio Bernardi, 51, an Italian national. A third man, Fabio Del Bergiolo, 50, also an Italian national, is reportedly a retired customs officer who in 2001 run for office with Forza Nuova, a neo-fascist Italian grouping. Until 2014, Forza Nuova activists were known to have close links with Svoboda, the far-right Ukrainian paramilitary group. But in the past five years, the Italian neo-fascist group’s leaders have openly sided with Ukraine’s pro-Russian rebels. Italian police reported that they found several guns in Bergiolo’s home, including nine unspecified “assault weapons” and 29 hunting rifles, as well as pistols and ammunition. But the most worrying find was an air-to-air guided missile at an airport hangar, which was placed inside a box that belonged to one of the three men. The missile is designed to be fired from an aircraft to target another aircraft. It is reportedly a Matra Super 530F, which was manufactured by France in 1980. According to the police report, it is “in perfect working order”. The most recent legal owner of the missile was the Qatar Air Force. It is not known how it ended up in the hands of the three suspects, but it is believed that they have been seeking to sell it in the black market.

The police raids took place less than two weeks after a court in Genoa sentenced three men for traveling to Russia and taking up arms alongside pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The three men were identified in court reports as Antonio Cataldo, an Italian citizen, Olsi Krutani, from Albania, and Vladimir Vrbitchii, who is from Moldova. The three men received jail sentences ranging from 16 months to 34 months. As a reminder, last September security agencies in Eastern Europe voiced concern about the rise of far-right paramilitary groups whose members allegedly have access to increasingly heavy weaponry, including in some cases armored vehicles and tanks.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 July 2019 | Permalink

Spy novel written by Kim Philby’s granddaughter to be published this week

Charlotte PhilbyA spy novel written by the granddaughter of Kim Philby, the British senior intelligence officer who secretly spied for the Soviet Union, will be published this week. Charlotte Philby, 36, is the London-based daughter of John Philby, who was one of the five children Kim Philby had with his English wife Aileen Furse. While working as a senior member of British intelligence, Harold Adrian Russell Philby, known as ‘Kim’ to his friends, spied for the Soviet NKVD and KGB. His espionage activities lasted from about 1933 until 1963, when he defected to the USSR from his home in Beirut, Lebanon. Philby’s defection sent ripples of shock across Western intelligence and is often seen as one of the most dramatic incidents of the Cold War. He was part of a larger ring of upper-class British spies, known collectively as ‘the Cambridge spies’ because they were recruited by Soviet intelligence during their student days at the University of Cambridge in England.

Following his sensational defection, Philby lived in the Soviet capital until his death in 1988 at the age of 76. His granddaughter gave an interview to British newspaper The Sunday Telegraph, in which she said that her father, John, “never said anything against Kim” and “enjoyed a very good relationship” with him. The family visited Kim Philby in Moscow every year until his death, when Charlotte was five. She told The Telegraph that she remembers these trips, and staying at Kim Philby’s apartment. She said the family would be met at the airport in Moscow “by men in grey suits” who would usher them into a government car and “whiz [them] to the gated apartment block where Kim lived” in downtown Moscow. During those trips, the family would give the double spy supplies of his favorite English foods and magazines. This may surprise some, given that Philby abandoned his second wife, an American, and his five children from his first wife. She had died six years prior to his defection, so the children, including Charlotte Philby’s father, were raised by relatives and family friends.

Charlotte Philby worked as a journalist for The Independent, a London-based British newspaper that ceased print circulation in 2016, and has since been writing as a freelancer. Her first novel, entitled The Most Difficult Thing, features a female protagonist who has to balance her espionage work with her relationship with those closest to her. The author says that Kim Philby’s ghost “hovers over the pages”. She notes that, if her grandfather had any regrets at the end of his life, “they wouldn’t be to do with betraying his country but with the individuals and the family members that he had to dupe and separate from”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 July 2019 | Permalink

Germany extradites spy to Croatia to serve 30-year sentence for role in assassination

Josip Perkovic Zdravko MustacGermany has extradited a former senior official of the Yugoslav intelligence service to Croatia, where he is expected to serve a 30-year prison sentence for organizing the assassination of a dissident in Munich in 1983. Josip Perković is a former senior official in the Yugoslav State Security Service, known as UDBA. In 2014, he was extradited to Germany from Croatia alongside another former UDBA officer Zdravko Mustać. The two men were tried in a German court in the Bavarian capital Munich for organizing the assassination of Stjepan Đureković on July 28, 1983. Đureković’s killing was carried out by UDBA operatives in Wolfratshausen, Bavaria as part of a UDBA operation codenamed DUNAV. Đureković, who was of Croatian nationality, was director of Yugoslavia’s state-owned INA oil company until 1982, when he suddenly defected to West Germany. Upon his arrival in Germany, he was granted political asylum and began associating with Croatian nationalist émigré groups that were active in the country. It was the reason why he was killed by the government of Yugoslavia.

In 2016, both men were found guilty of organizing Đureković’s murder and were sentenced to life imprisonment, a sentence that was upheld by Germany’s Supreme Court in May. Last year, a court in the Croatian capital Zagreb commuted Perković’s prison sentence to 30 years so that he could be extradited there, since the Croatian justice system does not recognize life prison sentences. A statement from the German Interior Ministry said on Thursday that Perković had been transported to Zagreb on a regular flight from Munich “without incident”. Perković’s extradition to Croatia also concluded a long-standing bureaucratic battle between the former Yugoslav Republic and the European Union. In 2013, shortly before joining the EU, Croatia made it illegal to extradite individuals abroad for crimes committed before 2002. It is believed that Croatian officials changed the law in an attempt to protect armed Croatian nationalists who engaged in criminal activity during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s from being tried in European courts. Following systematic pressure from the EU, Croatia scrapped the extradition restriction and sent Perković and Mustać to Germany.

Legal proceedings to extradite Mustać to Croatia to serve his sentence there are continuing. Meanwhile, the two former spies have sued the German state at the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that they were not given a fair trial in Munich. Anto Nobilo, who represented Perković in court, said that the European Court of Human Rights is likely to rule in favor of his client and that he will be “released in a year or two”. If this happens, Croatia will have to re-extradite Perković to Germany to face a new trial.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 July 2019 | Permalink

France admits ownership of missiles found in Libyan rebels’ hands

FGM-148 JavelinThe French government has admitted that four anti-tank missiles found in a Libyan rebel camp belonged to its Special Forces units, but denied accusations that it deliberately breached the United Nations-imposed weapons embargo on Libya. Libya’s UN-recognized government, the Government of National Accord (GNA), which is headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, announced in June that it discovered a cache of FGM-148 Javelin portable anti-tank missiles during a raid on a rebel camp. The camp belonged to forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, a rogue Libyan warlord who is supported by a group of Western-led nations that includes the United States, France, Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

The GNA released photographs of the laser-guided missiles and their shipping containers, which showed that the weapons were property of the “Armed Forces of the United Arab Emirates”. This appeared to constitute a clear breach of the UN-imposed weapons embargo on Libya, which has been in place since 2011. Last week, officials in Abu Dhabi said that the weapons did not belong to the Emirates, and claimed that the government of the oil kingdom was upholding the UN embargo on the North African country. On Tuesday, The New York Times cited anonymous French government sources, who said that Paris had purchased the four Javelin missiles from the US in 2010 for nearly $700,000. Finally, yesterday the French Armed Forces Ministry issued a statement admitting that it had indeed purchased the missiles from the US in 2010, and that they had been transferred to Libya for “the self-protection of a French military unit deployed to carry out counter-terrorism operations” there (incidentally, France does not officially have troops in Libya, so this statement is Paris’ second admission of the presence of French Special Forces in the country). The Ministry’s statement went on to claim that the missiles were “defective” and had been marked for destruction. The statement insisted that the missiles were not meant to be “transferred to local forces”. Instead, like all “damaged and unusable armaments, they were being temporarily stocked at a depot ahead of their destruction”, it said.

In 2017, two leading American experts, including a former special counsel for the US Department of Defense and a Harvard University law professor, accused Haftar of having committed large-scale war crimes. Unfazed by such criticisms, Haftar launched a large-scale offensive in April of this year, with the aim of conquering Tripoli and ousting the GNA. Several UN reports have since indicated that Haftar’s forces are secretly supported by several Western countries, Israel, Egypt and the Emirates, but this is denied by officials from those countries. In April of this year, a number European Union member states led by Italy criticized France for blocking a joint resolution calling on all warring factions in Libya to cease all hostilities and return to the negotiating table.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 July 2019 | Permalink

Poland frees on bail former intelligence officer arrested for spying for China

Orange PolskaThe Polish government has authorized the release on bail of a former counterintelligence officer who was charged in January of this year with spying for China. The man has been identified in media reports as Piotr Durbajlo and is believed to have served as deputy director of the Internal Security Agency, Poland’s domestic counterintelligence service. A cyber security expert, Durbajlo also served in Poland’s Office of Electronic Communications with a top security clearance and unrestricted access to classified systems of Poland and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, of which Poland is a member.

However, at the time of his arrest on January 10, Durbajlo had left government service and was a mid-level executive at Orange Polska. The company operates as the Polish branch of a French multinational telecommunications carrier with sister companies in several European Union countries. Along with Durbajlo, Polish authorities arrested Wang Weijing, a Chinese national who worked for the Chinese telecommunications manufacturer Huawei. Orange Polska is Huawei’s main domestic partner in Poland. Wang reportedly learned Polish at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. In 2006 he was posted by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Chinese consulate in Gdansk, Poland’s largest Baltic Sea port. In 2011 he left the Foreign Service and joined the Polish office of Huawei. Following his arrest on January 10, he was charged with espionage. Huawei denied it had any role in espionage against the Polish state, but fired Wang nonetheless. Both Wang and Durbajlo have been in pretrial detention since their arrest in January.

On Friday, July 5, Durbajlo’s legal team announced that he would be set free on July 7, on a $31,500 bail that must be paid within 30 days to secure his release. His lawyers explained that the charges against him had not been dropped, but did not explain why he was being released. It is worth noting that Durbajlo’s release on bail was announced during a visit to Poland by a high-level Chinese delegation, aimed at discussing economic and political ties between Warsaw and Beijing. Late on Tuesday it was announced that Wang would remain in pretrial detention for at least three more months.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 July 2019 | Permalink