Chinese diplomat who defected to Australia breaks silence to warn of spies

Chen YonglinA Chinese diplomat, who made international news headlines in 2005 when he defected to Australia, has ended a decade of silence to warn about an alleged increase in Chinese espionage operations against his adopted country. Chen Yonglin was a seasoned member of the Chinese diplomatic corps in 2001, when he was posted as a political affairs consul at the Chinese consulate in Sydney, Australia. His job was to keep tabs on the Chinese expatriate community in Australia, with an emphasis on individuals and organizations deemed subversive by Beijing. He later revealed that his main preoccupation was targeting members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is illegal in China. He also targeted supporters of Taiwanese independence, as well as Tibetan and East Turkestan nationalists who were active on Australian soil.

But in 2005, Chen contacted the Australian government and said that he wanted to defect, along with his spouse and six-year-old daughter. He was eventually granted political asylum by Canberra, making his the highest-profile defection of a Chinese government employee to Australia in over half a century. During a subsequent testimony given to the Parliament of Australia, Chen said that he was in contact with Australian intelligence and was giving them information about alleged Chinese espionage activities. He said at the time that China operated a network of over 1,000 “secret agents and informants” in Australia. Chen distinguished agents and informants from Chinese intelligence officers, most of whom were stationed in Chinese diplomatic facilities.

Chen, who now works as a businessman, disappeared from the public limelight after his defection. But last weekend, he reappeared after a decade of obscurity and gave an interview to ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster. The ABC journalist reminded Chen that in 2005 he had estimated the number of Chinese agents and informants operating in Australia at 1,000, and asked him how many he thought were active today. Chen responded that an increase in the number is certain, given that “China is now the wealthiest government in the world”. That meant, said Chen, that Beijing has the funds that are necessary to maintain “a huge number of spies” in Australia. However, the former diplomat said that most Chinese agents are “casual informants”, not trained spies, and that they are dormant for long periods of time in between operations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 November 2016 | Permalink

India and Pakistan recall diplomats accused of espionage

Pakistani embassy in IndiaIndia is in the process of recalling eight of its diplomats from Pakistan, after their names and photographs were published in Pakistani newspapers with accusations that they are intelligence officers. According to anonymous sources in the government of Pakistan, three of the eight recalled diplomats have already left Islamabad for New Delhi. Five more are expected to leave the country before the end of the week. The three who left Pakistan yesterday were identified in the Pakistani media as Madhavan Nanda, Vijay Kumar Verma and Anurag Singh. Pakistani media said earlier this week that the three are “undercover agents”, suggesting that they are intelligence officers posted in India under diplomatic cover.

The eight Indian diplomats were recalled less than a week after Pakistan withdrew six of its diplomats from its embassy in New Delhi. Their names were released to the Indian media by the country’s intelligence services, following the arrest of Mahmood Akhtar, a Pakistani diplomat who was detained by Indian authorities, allegedly while committing espionage. Indian authorities said Akhtar admitted he was an intelligence officer under interrogation, and identified five more Pakistani diplomats as undercover intelligence operatives. All six were accused of espionage by New Delhi, declared persona non grata (unwanted persons) and were ordered to leave the country. Observers see the recent outing of the Indian diplomats in the Pakistani media as a tit-for-tat response by Islamabad.

Interestingly, none of the eight Indian diplomats were officially declared persona non grata by Pakistani authorities. But the publication of their names and photographs in the Pakistani media were sufficient to prompt the Indian government to recall them back to New Delhi. Tensions between the two neighboring countries have been rising in recent months, mostly over ethnic and religious tensions in the disputed region of Kashmir, which belongs to India but is populated primarily by Muslims. On Tuesday, one Indian soldier and thee Pakistani civilians were killed on both sides of the border, after fire was exchanged between warring sides.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 November 2016 | Permalink

Russia accuses UK of deliberately delaying visas for its diplomats in London

Russian embassy LondonRussia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom has accused the British Foreign Office of deliberately delaying the issuance of visas for its diplomatic officials who have been assigned to join the Russian embassy in London. Alexander Yakovenko, Russia’s former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, who has been heading the Russian embassy in London since 2011, said last week that the size of his staff was “shrinking” to unprecedented numbers. The reason, said Yakovenko, was that the government in London appeared to be following a systematic policy of delaying visa requests for Russian diplomats assigned to serve in London.

“As our people return home or go on to other postings, visas for their replacements are not being issued”, said Yakovenko. Consequently, the Russian embassy’s personnel numbers were shrinking, and would shrink even further unless the issue was resolved by Whitehall, he said. The Russian ambassador added that his embassy did not understand “the strategy of this country on visa issues”, implying that London was following a deliberate plan to prevent Russian diplomats from staffing the embassy. But the British Foreign Office responded on Saturday that it was not following a deliberate policy of delaying the issuance of visas for Russian diplomats. The BBC quoted a Foreign Office spokesman who said that the British government had “made it clear to the Russians that the queues [for visa issuances] need to be cleared on both sides”. The comment implies that London’s stance may be a response to efforts by Moscow to reduce the size of the British diplomatic core stationed in the Russian capital.

Bilateral relations between Britain and Russia have suffered since 2006, when the murder of former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko in London prompted Whitehall to expel four Russian diplomats stationed there. The Russian involvement in Ukraine and Syria has further strained relations between Moscow and London in recent years. In August of 2015, the Russian Embassy accused the British government of “effectively expelling” four of its diplomats from London by refusing to grant them visas for more than three months.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 24 October 2016 | Permalink

Cease-fire near collapse after US airstrike kills 62 and injures 100 Syrian troops

Deir al-Zour SyriaA cease-fire that was launched with much fanfare by the United States and Russia last week appeared in tatters on Sunday night, after Washington acknowledged it mistakenly killed over 60 Syrian troops on Saturday. American officials expressed regret for the alleged error, but Syrian and Russian officials accused Washington of deliberately sabotaging the cease-fire agreement. Russian sources said the US air strike killed 62 and injured over 100 Syrian government troops who were engaged in a battle against Islamic State forces in Syria’s eastern province of Deir al-Zour. American military officials insisted that the pilots, who flew into Syria from bases in Iraq, believed they were targeting Islamic State forces. The operation was allegedly aborted as soon as US forces were notified by the Russian military that Syrian government troops were being targeted.

According to media reports, the US government has apologized to Damascus though Russian intermediaries for the “unintentional loss of life of Syrian forces”. But the incident has incensed Moscow, as it marks the first known engagement between US and Syrian forces since American military forces began fighting the Islamic State in 2014. The incident was described by The Washington Post late on Saturday as having sparked “one of the most hostile diplomatic exchanges between Washington and Moscow in recent years”. Soon after the US airstrike, Russia called an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, during which the Russian delegation accused the United States of deliberately trying to derail the cease-fire. According to reports, the American delegation stormed out of the closed-door meeting and denounced it as a “stunt” after the Russians openly accused Washington of aiding the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Syria.

American officials have launched an investigation into Saturday’s incident and are so far refusing to speculate whether it was caused by human error or an intelligence failure. In Washington, a State Department spokesman insisted that “coalition forces would not intentionally strike a known a Syrian military unit”. But in a statement issued on Saturday, Russian Major General Igor Konashenkov said that, if the US air strike was in error, it was a “direct outcome of the US side’s stubborn unwillingness to coordinate its activities  in Syria with Russia”.

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

Soviet memoirs suggest KGB abducted and murdered Swedish diplomat

Raoul WallenbergThe recently discovered memoirs of a former director of the Soviet KGB suggest that a senior Swedish diplomat, who disappeared mysteriously in the closing stages of World War II, was killed on the orders of Joseph Stalin. The fate of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg is one of the 20th century’s unsolved espionage mysteries. In 1944 and 1945, the 33-year-old Wallenberg was Sweden’s ambassador to Budapest, the capital of German-allied Hungary. During his time there, Wallenberg is said to have saved over 20,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazi concentration camps, by supplying them with Swedish travel documents, or smuggling them out of the country through a network of safe houses. He also reportedly dissuaded German military commanders from launching an all-out armed attack on Budapest’s Jewish ghetto.

But Wallenberg was also an American intelligence asset, having been recruited by a US spy operating out of the War Refugee Board, an American government outfit with offices throughout Eastern Europe. In January of 1945, as the Soviet Red Army descended on Hungary, Moscow gave orders for Wallenberg’s arrest on charges of spying for Washington. The Swedish diplomat disappeared, never to be seen in public again. Some historians speculate that Joseph Stalin initially intended to exchange Wallenberg for a number of Soviet diplomats and intelligence officers who had defected to Sweden. According to official Soviet government reports, Wallenberg died of a heart attack on July 17, 1947, while being interrogated at the Lubyanka, a KGB-affiliated prison complex in downtown Moscow. Despite the claims of the official Soviet record, historians have cited periodic reports that Wallenberg may have managed to survive in the Soviet concentration camp system until as late as the 1980s.

But the recently discovered memoirs of Ivan Serov, who directed the KGB from 1954 to 1958, appear to support the prevalent theory about Wallenberg’s demise in 1947. Serov led the feared Soviet intelligence agency under the reformer Nikita Khrushchev, who succeeded Joseph Stalin in the premiership of the USSR. Khrushchev appointed Serov to conduct an official probe into Wallenberg’s fate. Serov’s memoirs were found in 2012 by one of his granddaughters, Vera Serova, inside several suitcases that had been secretly encased inside a wall in the family’s summer home. According to British newspaper The Times, the documents indicate that Wallenberg was indeed held for two years in the Lubyanka, where he was regularly interrogated by the KGB. The latter were certain that the Swedish diplomat was an American spy who had also been close to Nazi Germany’s diplomatic delegation in Hungary. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin considered exchanging him for Soviet assets in the West. But eventually Wallenberg “lost his value [and] Stalin didn’t see any point in sending him home”, according to Serov’s memoirs. The KGB strongman adds that “undoubtedly, Wallenberg was liquidated in 1947”. Further on, he notes that, according to Viktor Abakumov, who headed the MGB —a KGB predecessor agency— in the mid-1940s, the order to kill Wallenberg came from Stalin himself.

In 2011, Lt. Gen. Vasily Khristoforov, Chief Archivist for the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), one of two successor agencies to the old Soviet KGB, gave an interview about Wallenberg, in which he said that most of the Soviet documentation on the Swedish diplomat had been systematically destroyed in the 1950s. But he said that historical reports of Wallenberg’s survival into the 1980s were “a product of […] people’s imagination”, and insisted that he was “one hundred percent certain […] that Wallenberg never was in any prison” other than the Lubyanka. An investigation by the Swedish government into the diplomat’s disappearance and eventual fate is ongoing.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 September 2016 | Permalink

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