More on senior North Korean diplomat who defected in London

Thae Yong-HoA high-ranking North Korean diplomat, who defected with his wife and children in London, and is now in South Korea, is from a privileged family with a long revolutionary pedigree in North Korean politics. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification confirmed on Wednesday that Thae Yong-Ho, the second-in-command at the North Korean embassy in the United Kingdom, had defected with his wife and children and had been given political asylum in South Korea. As intelNews reported earlier this week, Thae, a senior career diplomat believed to be one of North Korea’s foremost experts on Western Europe, had disappeared with his family and was presumed to have defected “to a third country”.

New information has since emerged on Thae and his family, confirming that both he and his wife are members of North Korea’s privileged elite, with decades-old connections to the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. According to the Seoul-based JoongAng Daily, Thae’s wife, O Hye-Son, is a niece of the late O Peak-Ryong, a decorated communist guerrilla who fought Korea’s Japanese colonialists in the 1930s. O, who died in the 1980s, joined the Korean anti-Japanese struggle alongside Kim Il-Sung, founder of the Workers’ Party of Korea and first leader of North Korea. This means that O Hye-Son is also the cousin of O Peak-Ryong’s son, General O Kum-Chol, who is currently vice chairman of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army. Thae himself is the son of Thae Pyong-Ryol, a four-star general who also fought against the Japanese in the 1930s, alongside Kim Il-Sung. In the postwar period, General Thae became a senior member of the Workers’ Party of Korea and was appointed to the Party’s powerful Central Committee. He died in 1997.

JoongAng Daily quoted an unnamed “source familiar with the matter” of Thae’s defection, who said that the diplomat’s loyalty to the North Korean leadership had been unquestioned prior to his surprise defection. Most North Korean diplomats are posted at an embassy abroad for a maximum of three years before being moved elsewhere in the world. The fact that Thae had been allowed to remain in the United Kingdom for 10 years shows his privileged status within the Workers’ Party of Korea, said the source. Additionally, the children or most North Korean diplomats are required to return to their native country after completing high school. But this did not seem to apply to Thae, whose three children were living with him in Britain even after graduating from university. This and many other clues reflect Thae’s “impeccable credentials”, said the source, which made him one of the most trusted government officials in the regime’s bureaucratic arsenal.

It is believed that Thae defected because he had been told that his tenure in London was coming to an end after a decade, and he would have to relocate to a less desirable location, or possibly recalled back to Pyongyang. Defections among North Korea’s privileged elite are rare, but have been happening increasingly frequently in the past few years. This makes some observers believe that disillusionment among Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un’ inner circle is growing and that the North Korean regime is becoming weaker.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 August 2016 | Permalink

Senior North Korean diplomat reportedly defects in London (updated)

DPRK Embassy in LondonA senior member of North Korea’s diplomatic representation in the United Kingdom, who is considered one of his country’s leading specialists in Western European affairs, has reportedly defected “to a third country” with his family. The alleged defection was first reported on Tuesday by South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo. Citing “a source with in-depth knowledge of North Korea”, the Seoul-based paper said that the diplomat had disappeared several weeks ago, and that staff at the embassy of North Korea in London had failed in attempts to find him. Later on the same day, the British state-owned broadcaster BBC identified the missing diplomat as Thae Yong-Ho.

In a brief report, the BBC said that the diplomat had lived with his wife and children in London for a decade, and that the family —especially its younger members— were very integrated in British culture and way of life. Further updates in South Korean media said Thae was serving as deputy consul at the embassy, essentially as second-in-command after Ambassador Hak Bong Hyon. It is also believed that Thae was tasked with promoting a positive image of North Korea to British audiences, and was also in charge of cultivating the embassy’s relations with the UK Korean Friendship Association, an organized group of North Korean ideological sympathizers in Britain. But some reports indicate that the alleged defector also performed intelligence tasks, such as monitoring the activities of North Korean defectors living in London.

Thae is believed to be a senior member of North Korea’s diplomatic community. He grew up in China and is fluent in Chinese and English, in addition to his native Korean. He joined North Korea’s diplomatic ranks soon after graduating from university and is said to be one of the country’s foremost experts on Western Europe. If confirmed, his defection will deliver a serious blow to North Korea’s prestige and arguably hurt its intelligence capabilities in the West. This development will also have a major impact on the operations of the Asian country’s embassy in London, which is run by only five diplomats, including the ambassador. No comments have been made on this story by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the embassy of North Korea in London, or the government of South Korea. According to JoongAng Ilbo, Thae is currently “going through procedures to seek asylum in a third country” with his family.

Update 17 Aug. 2016, 5:00 p.m. GMT: The BBC now reports that Thae has defected to South Korea and that he and his family are “under the [South Korean] government’s protection”, according to officials in Seoul. He is believed to be the most senior North Korean official to have ever defected in the history of the communist state.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 August 2016 | Permalink

Iran executes nuclear scientist who claimed he was kidnapped by CIA

Shahram AmiriAuthorities in Iran have admitted that they executed a former scientist for the country’s nuclear program, who claimed that he was abducted by the United States after disappearing from Iran for a year. Shahram Amiri worked for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the government body that is responsible for operating and regulating the country’s nuclear installations. But in the summer of 2009, while on a religious pilgrimage to the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca, Amiri disappeared. Iranian authorities alleged at the time that Amiri had been kidnapped and possibly killed by Saudi, Israeli or American intelligence operatives.

Remarkably, the Iranian scientist reappeared almost a year later in Washington, DC. He entered the embassy of Pakistan in the American capital and asked to speak to the official in charge of the embassy’s Iranian interests section (since America and the Islamic Public have no official diplomatic relations, Pakistan’s embassy serves as an intermediary). He told officials at the embassy that he had been abducted by the Central Intelligence Agency after being drugged in Saudi Arabia. He also claimed that he was secretly transported to the US, where he was “subjected to intense psychological pressure” involving psychotropic drugs, interrogated and forced to reveal secrets about Iran’s nuclear program. But US officials denied Amiri’s claims and said the Iranian scientist had defected on his own accord and was free to return to Iran, if he wanted. Unconfirmed reports suggested that Amiri had changed his mind after defecting to the US, because he feared that Iranian authorities would harm his family. Some anonymous sources in Washington also claimed that Amiri had been offered $5 million for the information he gave the CIA, but that he had chosen to return to Iran instead of accepting the money.

On July 15, 2010, just three days after contacting the Pakistani embassy in DC, Amiri returned to a hero’s welcome in Iran, which was televised live. Meanwhile, Iranian officials accused the US and Israel of employing dirty tactics against the Islamic Republic. However, in May 2011 Amiri was suddenly arrested at his family home in Tehran and charged with treason. He underwent a secret trial, was convicted and was never again seen in public. On Saturday, Amiri’s family said they had received his body from the government, and that it appeared that he had died from hanging, judging by rope marks around his neck. On Sunday, Iran’s first deputy chief justice and former intelligence minister, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i, told reporters that Amir had indeed been executed by hanging. During his brief announcement, Mohseni-Eje’i said Amiri had endangered the Islamic Republic by giving “vital intelligence about the country to the enemy”, by which he said he meant the United States.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 August 2016 | Permalink

Senior Russian intelligence defector to the US is allegedly dead

Aleksandr PoteyevA Russian former senior intelligence officer, who reportedly defected to the United States after helping the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrest 10 Russian spies in 2010, is believed to have died. The arrests, which revealed the so-called “Russian illegals program” in the US, were part of a counterintelligence operation codenamed GHOST STORIES by the FBI. The operation culminated in June 2010 with the dramatic arrests of 10 Russian ‘illegals’ in several US states. The Russian illegals, deep-cover intelligence operatives with no official connection to the country that employs them, had been operating in the US for over a decade prior to their arrest, using passports from third countries, including Britain, Canada and Uruguay. They were eventually exchanged with spies for the West that had been imprisoned in Russia.

Moscow blamed the arrests of the illegals on Colonel Aleksandr Poteyev, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, who rose through the ranks of the KGB and its successor agency, the SVR, to become second-in-command in the so-called Department S. The senior leaders of Department S are believed to be appointed directly by the president of Russia, and are tasked with directing the activities of all Russian illegals operating abroad. According to the Russian government, which tried Poteyev in absentia in 2011, he began working for the US Central Intelligence Agency in 1999, shortly before entering the senior echelons of Department S.

A panel of judges was told during Poteyev’s Moscow trial that he left Russia without permission on June 24, 2010, just days before the FBI arrested the 10 Russian illegals in the US. He initially went to Belarus, from where he notified his unsuspecting wife via a text sent from a mobile phone that he was leaving Russia for good. He then traveled to Ukraine and from there to Germany, where he was allegedly picked up by his American CIA handler. It is believed that was provided with a new identity and passport, which he used to enter the US. By the time the Russians sentenced him to 25 years in prison for treason, Poteyev was adjusting to his new life in America.

But on July 7, the Moscow-based Interfax news agency reported that Poteyev, had died in the US, aged 64. The brief report did not specify the cause of Poteyev’s alleged death, nor did it state how Interfax acquired the information. Since the report was issued, no confirmation of Poteyev’s purported death has appeared from any other news source, or from government agencies. Russia’s Sputnik News contacted the SVR last week, but the agency declined to comment. It is believed that Poteyev’s two children were working in the US at the time of his defection, and that they are still living in the country.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 July 2016 | Permalink

Elite Hamas military commander reportedly defects to Israel

Kerem Shalom border crossingA senior member of the military wing of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that governs the Gaza Strip, is believed to have defected to Israel. News of the rumored defection first appeared on the website of Al-Hayat al-Jadida, the official newspaper of the Palestinian Authority, which is based in the West Bank. On Tuesday, Al-Hayat said that the man, a member of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, had not been seen for several days.

The alleged defector was later named as Bassam Mahmoud Baraka, and reportedly comes from a well-known family in Kahn Younis, on the southern sector of the Gaza Strip. Baraka’s father is believed to be a religious judge that serves in Gaza under Hamas’ jurisdiction. According to Al-Hayat, the missing man is an elite member of the al-Qassam Brigades and specializes in operating inside the numerous underground tunnels that are said to span the entirety of the Palestinian enclave. The tunnels are of strategic importance to Hamas, as they secretly connect it with the outside world, despite Israeli efforts to prevent the trafficking of goods and people to and from the Gaza Strip. Some Israeli military officials believe that Hamas operatives are able to travel from one end of the Strip to the other without having to emerge from the ground. Since the 2014 Israeli invasion of Gaza, Tel Aviv has said that it views the elimination of Hamas’ vast underground tunnel network as a national security priority.

According to Palestinian websites, Baraka told members of his family that he was stepping out for a brief hike but never returned. He is believed to have voluntarily approached the border fence that separates Gaza from Israel and surrendered himself to a group of Israeli soldiers. Al-Hayat reports that Baraka’s family has already been informed from representatives of the Red Cross that he is in Israeli hands. Palestinian sources suggest that the Israeli soldiers that took in Baraka were aware of his pending defection and were waiting for him at the border. He was also reportedly carrying a laptop computer with him.

Israel is known to aggressively recruit informants in the Gaza Strip, many of them affiliated with Hamas. In 2010 it was revealed that Mosab Hassan Yousef, whose father is a senior Hamas official, was a secret informant for Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency. Yousef defected to Israel and is now believed to be living in the United States.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 15 June 2016 | Permalink

Jail for man involved in planned assassination of senior North Korean defector

Hwang Jang-yopAn appeals court in Seoul has upheld the conviction of a South Korean member of a spy cell that planned to assassinate the most senior North Korean defector to the South. The man, identified in media reports only by his last name, Park, is a South Korean citizen who allegedly helped a North Korean spy cell “based in China” plan the assassination of Hwang Jang-yop. In 1997, Hwang caused a sensation on both sides of the border when he defected to the South. A former secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party, Hwang was Pyongyang’s primary theorist and the ideological architect of juche, the philosophy of self-reliance, which is North Korea’s officially sanctioned state dogma. He was also believed to have ideologically mentored North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il, the father of the country’s current Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un. Until his death from heart failure in April 2010, Hwang, had been living in the South with around-the-clock security protection.

In October 2010, a few months before Hwang’s death, South Korean authorities revealed that two self-confessed North Korean spies, Tong Myong Kwan and Kim Myung Ho, had allegedly admitted to posing as defectors. Seoul said that Tong and Kim, who were both 36 at the time, were on an assassination mission assigned to them by the intelligence unit of the North Korean Ministry of Defense. The two reportedly stated under interrogation that they were selected for the mission in 2004 and were trained for six years in spy trade craft, as well as techniques of assimilating in life in South Korea, which apparently included “watching South Korean soap operas to gain a better understanding of South Korean society”.

At the time of Tong and Kim’s arrest, South Korean authorities had stated that the two alleged North Korean spies had been assisted by at least two South Korean citizens. One has never been named. The other, Park, was indicted last year of providing logistical support to foreign spies who were plotting to kill Hwang, in return for ₩25 million ($21,000). His legal team appealed the sentence, saying he had been framed by the North Koreans. But on Tuesday, the Seoul High Court rejected the Park’s appeal and upheld his original 3-year jail sentence.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 May 2016 | Permalink

South Korea announces most high-profile defection from North since Korean War

North and South KoreaA North Korean intelligence official who sought refuge in South Korea last year is the most high profile defector to the South since the end of the Korean War in 1953, according to authorities in Seoul. An announcement issued by the South Korean government last week said the defector is a colonel in the Korean People’s Army who worked for the Reconnaissance General Bureau, a military-intelligence agency that resembles the United States Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division.

The initial announcement was made by a spokesman representing South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, which is the department of the government that is responsible for working towards the reunification of Korea. He said that the agency could not find any records of defectors that were of a more senior rank since the end of all-out hostilities in the Korean War. However, he declined to provide further details about the identity of the colonel and the details of his defection. Another spokesman, from South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, confirmed the high-profile defection but said he had not been authorized to release further information on the case. But he said that the Reconnaissance General Bureau had defected to the South “last year”, without giving a precise timeline. He added that the North Korean colonel was providing South Korea with details about Pyongyang’s intelligence operations against the South.

Prior to this latest case, the most high-profile defection to the South of a North Korean government figure was that of Hwang Jang-yop, a senior Pyongyang official who was seen as the architect of ‘juche’, the official state ideology of North Korea. During a visit to Beijing, China, in 1997, Hwang entered the embassy of South Korea and asked for political asylum. He died in South Korea in 2010.

It is extremely rare for Seoul to acknowledge defections from North Korea; the South Korean government typically cites privacy and security concerns in response to questions about defectors. The unusual step of announcing the defection of the North Korean colonel several months after the fact led some opposition liberal figures in South Korea to accuse the conservative government of trying to use the case in order to win votes in last Wednesday’s legislative elections. The election was an upset victory for the liberal Minjoo party, which managed to deny the conservative Saenuri Party a majority in the parliament.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 17 April 2016 | Permalink

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