Son of South Korean foreign minister defects to North Korea

Choe In-gukThe son of a South Korean former cabinet minister has defected to North Korea, marking a rare instance of a citizen of South Korea switching his allegiance to the North. It is even rarer for such high-profile South Korean citizens to defect to North Korea. The defector is Choe In-guk, son of Choe Deok-sin, who served as South Korea’s minister of foreign affairs in the 1970s under the South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee. Choe was an American-trained army officer who served under United States command in the Korean War. He then served as a member of the cabinet and as South Korea’s ambassador to West Germany.

But by 1980, Choe had fallen out with the South Korean military government and was subsequently pushed out of the ruling Democratic Republican Party of Korea. He moved to the United States with his wife, Ryu Mi-yong, from where in 1986 the couple defected to North Korea. Soon after his defection, Choe was appointed director of North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland under the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). Until her death in 2012, Ryu served as chairwoman of the Chondoist Chongu Party, a nationalist North Korean political party that supports the policies of the ruling WPK.

North Korean media reported that Choe and Ryu’s son, Choe In-guk, arrived at the Pyongyang Sunan International Airport on July 6. The North Korean state-run news website Uriminzokkiri published several photographs of the 73-year-old Choe being greeted by a welcoming committee of North Korean government officials holding flowers and gifts. Choe is reported to have given a brief speech upon his arrival in Pyongyang, praising North Korea’s leader and lamenting not having defected earlier in his life. The defector added that he intended to devote the remainder of his life to continue the work of his parents and to push for the reunification of the two Koreas.

On Sunday, South Korean Ministry of Unification confirmed that Choe had defected to North Korea from the United States. The Ministry also said that Choe had not obtained permission to travel to North Korea, which is required of all South Korean citizens who wish to cross the border between the two countries. It appears that Choe first traveled to the United States and for there to a third country —possibly China— before entering North Korea. South Korean officials announced that an investigation into his defection has been launched.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 July 2019 | Permalink

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US lifts sanctions on Venezuelan ex-spy chief, calls on others to defect

SEBIN VenezuelaIn an effort to persuade senior members of the Venezuelan government to defect, the United States has lifted punitive financial sanctions on the country’s intelligence director, who left his post on April 30. General Christopher Figuera became director of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) in October 2018. SEBIN is Venezuela’s primary intelligence agency and has a dual domestic and international role. Much of its domestic mission is to protect and defend the Bolivarian Revolution, which forms the ideological framework of the government headed by President Nicolás Maduro. It follows that SEBIN’s employees are all trusted supporters of Venezuela’s embattled President.

On February 15 of this year, the United States government included General Figuera on a financial sanctions list of Venezuelan government officials who held senior posts in the Maduro government. But on April 30, General Figuera appeared to be one of relatively few senior Venezuelan officials to respond favorably to an open call by Juan Guaidó, the United States-supported President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, to remove Maduro from power. Figuera was reportedly denounced by Venezuelan government officials and summarily replaced by Gustavo Gonzalez Lopez, who was director of SEBIN until he was replaced by Figuera in 2018.

On Tuesday, the United States government said that it had removed General Figuera from its financial sanctions list. Speaking before reporters in Washington, US Vice President Mike Pence said that Figuera was “an example to follow” for other senior Venezuelan government officials and urged more of them to follow Figuera’s example. Pence added that the US government wanted to reward Figuera for abandoning his post and denouncing Maduro. In a subsequent statement given to the media, the US Department of the Treasury said that removal of sanctions “may be available” for all senior Venezuelan officials “who take concrete and meaningful actions to restore democratic order” in the Latin American country. The statement did not elaborate on the meaning of taking “concrete and meaningful actions”.

In a potentially related development, the Venezuelan government said on Tuesday that it had taken control of three private airfields in the vicinity of the capital city of Caracas, in order “to prevent illicit acts which would compromise the safety of civil aviation”. It is believed that General Figuera left the country with his family using a private airfield, and that the Maduro government is trying to stop others from following his example.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 May 2019 | Permalink

FBI seeks arrest of US counterintelligence officer who defected to Iran

Monica WittAn American intelligence officer, who held the highest level of security clearance for over a decade, defected to Iran in 2012 and has been spying against the United States ever since, it was revealed yesterday. Monica Witt, 39, was a counterintelligence officer for the United States Air Force from 1997 until 2008, specializing in the Middle East. Throughout her career, she was deployed by the US military to the Middle East on several occasions, in order to carry out counterintelligence missions the details of which remain classified to this day.

According to the US government, one of these missions involved her attendance of an international conference organized by New Horizon Organization. The group is believed to operate as a public relations arm of the Quds Force —the intelligence and paramilitary wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, whose mission is to spread the ideals of the Islamic Revolution around the world. Witt’s mission was allegedly to monitor the conference proceedings and collect information on attendees. It was while attending that conference that, according to US government documents, Witt started to become attracted to the Iranian government’s world view. She left the US Air Force in 2008 and moved to Central Asia, initially teaching English in Afghanistan and later in Tajikistan. A year later, she vanished. She allegedly reemerged in Iran in 2013, where she appeared on several television programs in which she renounced United States policy on the Middle East and publicly espoused Shi’a Islam. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, soon after she defected to Iran, Witt used social media to identify and then compile lists of the whereabouts of several of her colleagues in US Air Force counterintelligence. She then gave this information to the Iranian intelligence services, which used it to launch a series of operations targeting current and former US intelligence personnel.

At a press conference held yesterday in Washington, DC, officials from the FBI, the Department of State and the Department of Treasury announced criminal charges against Witt and New Horizon Organization, which they accused of conducting espionage against the US. They also announced charges against employees of the Iranian-registered Net Peygard Samavat Company, which they said used Witt’s information to launch targeted information operations against American government personnel. Witt remains at large and is believed to reside in Iran.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 February 2019 | Permalink

Moscow names intersection after Kim Philby, British spy for the USSR

Kim PhilbyIn a sign of worsening relations between the United Kingdom and Russia, a busy intersection in Moscow has been named after Kim Philby, the British senior intelligence officer who secretly spied for the Soviet Union. While working as a senior member of British intelligence, Harold Adrian Russell Philby, known as ‘Kim’ to his friends, spied on behalf of the Soviet NKVD and KGB. His espionage activities lasted from about 1933 until 1963, when he secretly 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 wider 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. On Tuesday, a statement published on the website of the Moscow City Council announced that a busy intersection in the city’s southeast would be renamed to ‘Kim Philby Square’ in honor of the British defector. The statement said that the name change had been agreed upon by the city council and decreed by Moscow Mayor Sergei Sbyanin, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Interestingly, Philby lived nowhere near the intersection named after him. His apartment —provided to him by the Soviet state in exchange for services rendered during his 30 years of spying— was located in a residential area of central Moscow. However, the intersection in question is situated near the headquarters of the SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, which is the primary successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB. In September of last year, SVR Director Sergei Naryshkin attended an exhibition in Moscow entitled “Kim Philby: His Intelligence Work and Personal Life”, organized by the Russian Historical Society. While there, Naryshkin was told by veterans of the KGB that Philby liked to take long walks through the streets of Moscow and that a street should be named after him in his honor.

French news agency Agence France Presse reported that it contacted the Moscow City Council but a spokeswoman said she was not in a position to comment on the Kim Philby Square renaming. The move comes a few months after a small pedestrian thoroughfare located across from the front entrance of the Russian embassy in Washington DC was symbolically named ‘Boris Nemtsov’, after a Russian opposition leader who was gunned down in downtown Moscow in February of 2015.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 November 2018 | Permalink

US intelligence reevaluates safety of Russian defectors in light of Skripal poisoning

CIAIntelligence officials in the United States are feverishly reassessing the physical safety of dozens of Russian defectors, in light of the case of Russian double spy Sergei Skripal, who was poisoned in England last March. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer who spied for Britain, was resettled in the English town of Salisbury in 2010 by the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). But he and his daughter Yulia made international headlines in March, after they were poisoned by a powerful nerve agent that nearly killed them. The attack has been widely blamed on the Russian government, though the Kremlin denies that it had a role in it.

Like MI6, the US Central Intelligence Agency also has a protection program for foreign nationals whose life may be at risk because they spied for the US. The CIA’s protection division, called the National Resettlement Operations Center, helps resettle and sometimes hide and protect dozens of foreign agents, or assets, as they are known in CIA lingo. But following the Skripal case, some CIA resettlement officials have expressed concern that protection levels for some foreign assets may need to be significantly raised. The New York Times, which published the story last week, said that it spoke to “current and former American intelligence officials”, which it did not name. In light of those concerns, US counterintelligence officials have been carrying out what The Times described as “a wide-reaching review” of every Russian asset who has been resettled in the US. The purpose of the review is to assess the ease with which these former assets can be traced through their digital footprint on social media and other publicly available information.

According to the paper, several Russians who defected to the US after working for the CIA and other US intelligence agencies were tracked down by the Kremlin in recent years. In the mid-1990s, says The Times, the CIA actually found an explosive device placed under the car of a Russian defector living in the US. More recently, US intelligence traced the movements of a suspected Russian assassin who visited the neighborhood of a resettled Russian defector in Florida. In the past, Russian CIA assets who have been resettled in the US have voluntarily revealed their whereabouts by reaching out to relatives back in Russia out of homesickness. In some cases, they have left the US in order to meet a lover who may have been planted by the Russian spy services —with sometimes fatal consequences.

In addition to the US, at least one more country has initiated a thorough review of the way it protects former Russian assets living in its territory in light of the Skripal case. As intelNews reported in March, the British secret services tightened the physical security of dozens of Russian defectors living in Britain only a week after the attempted murder of Skripal. Britain’s security services reportedly viewed the attack on Skripal as an intelligence failure and launched a comprehensive review of the risk to British-based Russian double spies and defectors from “unconventional threats”. The latter included attacks with chemical and radiological weapons.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 September 2018 | Permalink

Group of 13 North Korean defectors say they were ‘forcibly kidnapped’ by South

Pyongyang Restaurant in Jakarta, IndonesiaA group of 12 female North Korean restaurant workers and their male manager claim that their widely advertised defections in 2016 were fake, and that they were in fact abducted by South Korea’s spy services. The North Korean government maintains a chain of North Korea-themed restaurants throughout Asia, which operate as popular tourist attractions across Southeast Asia. The state-owned restaurants help provide the cash-strapped regime in Pyongyang with desperately needed foreign funds. The North Korean staff —almost all of them female— who work at these restaurants are carefully vetted and chosen to represent the reclusive regime abroad. Some observers claim that these restaurants serve “as a main front to conduct intelligence gathering and surveillance [against foreign] politicians, diplomats, top corporate figures and businessmen”.

In April of 2016, the entire staff of a North Korean restaurant in the Chinese city of Ningbo defected. They disappeared all of a sudden, and reappeared a few days later in South Korean capital Seoul, where South Korean authorities held a press conference. The South Koreans told reporters that the 13 North Koreans had decided to defect after watching South Korean television dramas, which allegedly caused them to lose faith in the North Korean system of rule. But Pyongyang dismissed the defections as propaganda and claimed that its citizens had been abducted by South Korean intelligence.

Now in a shocking interview published by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, Ho Kang-il, the male manager of the North Korean restaurant in Ningbo said that he and his staff had been forcibly taken to South Korea. Ho told Yonhap that he had been approached by officers of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) who tried to entice him to defect to South Korea. They told him that he could open a restaurant if he chose to lead a new life in the south. Initially Ho said he was interested in the offer. But when he appeared to change his mind, the NIS officers threatened to inform the North Korean embassy in China that he had been speaking with them. Ho also said that the NIS officers blackmailed his staff at the restaurant using similar methods. Consequently, all 13 of them decided to cooperate with the NIS, as they “had no choice but to do what they told [us] to do”, said Ho.

On Sunday, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea, Ojea Quintana, said during a press conference that the UN was concerned about the allegations made by Ho. He also said that some of the North Korean defectors had told UN personnel that they left China without knowledge of where they were being taken by South Korean intelligence. Quintana concluded his remarks by calling for a “thorough investigation” into the alleged abductions of the North Koreans.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 July 2018 | Permalink

Emirati royal seeks asylum in rival Qatar in unprecedented move

Sheikh Rashid bin Hamad al-SharqiA member of one of the United Arab Emirates’ seven royal families has defected to Qatar and asked for political asylum, in what appears to be the first time that an Emirati royal has publicly turned against the oil-rich kingdom. In May of last year, the UAE joined an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia, which broke off all diplomatic relations with Qatar. The coalition accuses the tiny oil kingdom of clandestinely supporting Iran and funding Iranian-backed militant groups in the region. The UAE also participates in an ongoing large-scale commercial embargo against Qatar, which observers say is part of the regional cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

But on the morning of May 16, 2018, security officers in the Qatari capital Doha were stunned when an Emirati royal appeared before them and asked for political asylum and protection from the UAE. The royal was Sheikh Rashid bin Hamad al-Sharqi, the second son of the emir of Fujairah, one of the seven kingdoms that form the UAE. As a son of Fujairah’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed al-Sharqi, Sheikh Rashid, 31, had been placed in charge of the kingdom’s state-owned media arm. But in a stunning development, which appears to be a first in the 47-year history of the UAE, the prince has now defected to the UAE’s rival Qatar, and is publicly airing criticism of the UAE’s secretive rulers. In an interview with The New York Times last weekend, the prince provided what the paper described as “a rare glimpse into tensions among the rulers of the UAE” —especially between the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, which dominates the UAE, and the other six kingdoms.

Sheikh Rashid told The Times that Emirati officials were displeased with the country’s military intervention in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is battling against Iranian-backed rebels. The increasingly bloody war is now in its third year without a clear end in sight. According to the prince, the rulers of Abu Dhabi have repeatedly failed to consult the country’s six remaining kingdoms before making major decisions about the war in Yemen. The sheikh also accused the leadership of the UAE of money laundering, and claimed that it was routine for UAE royals like himself to be asked by the country’s rulers to make secret payments “to people he did not know in other countries”, in direct violation of international money-laundering laws. Prince Rashid also alleged that the UAE government had tried to blackmail him by threatening to reveal audiovisual material that would discredit his reputation.

The Times said it reached out to the government of the Emirate of Fujairah, but its messages were not returned. The paper also contacted the UAE’s embassy in Washington, DC, but officials there declined to comment. For the time being, Sheikh Rashid remains at an unspecified location in Qatar, but the Qatari government will not comment as to his whereabouts.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 July 2018 | Permalink