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.


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