North Korea used Berlin embassy to acquire nuclear tech, says German spy chief

North Korean embassy in BerlinNorth Korea used its embassy in Berlin to acquire technologies that were almost certainly used to advance its missile and nuclear weapons programs, according to the head of Germany’s counterintelligence agency. For many decades, Pyongyang has used a sophisticated international system of procurement to acquire technologies and material for its conventional and nuclear weapons programs. These secret methods have enabled the country to evade sanctions placed on it by the international community, which wants to foil North Korea’s nuclear aspirations.

But according to Hans-Georg Maassen, director of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), at least some of the technologies used by North Korea to advance its nuclear program were acquired through its embassy in Berlin. Maassen admitted this during an interview on ARD television, part of Germany’s national broadcasting service. The interview will be aired on Monday evening, but selected excerpts were published on Saturday on the website of NDR, Germany’s national radio broadcaster. Maassen was vague about the nature of the technology that the North Koreans acquired through their embassy in Berlin. But he said that North Korean diplomats and intelligence officers with diplomatic credentials engaged in acquiring so-called “dual use” technologies, which have both civilian and military uses. These, said Maassen, were acquired “with a view to [North Korea’s] missile program and sometimes also for the nuclear program”.

Maassen noted that the BfV had evidence of North Korean diplomats in Berlin attempting to procure dual use technologies as late as 2016 and 2017. “When we notice such actions, we prevent them”, said the BfV director, adding that in 2014 his agency prevented a North Korean diplomat from acquiring equipment that could have been used to develop chemical weapons. However, “we simply cannot guarantee that we are able to detect and block each and every attempt”, said Maassen.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 February 2018 | Permalink

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Nuclear scientist expelled from China kills himself in North Korean prison

Sinuiju North KoreaA North Korean nuclear scientist who defected to China but was involuntarily sent back to North Korea in November reportedly killed himself in his North Korean cell hours before he was due to be interrogated. Information about the scientist’s alleged suicide was issued on Thursday by Radio Free Asia (RFA), a multilingual news service based in Washington, DC, which is funded by the United States government. The service said its reporters spoke to an anonymous source in North Hamgyong province, North Korea’s northernmost region that borders China. The source identified the late scientist as Hyun Cheol Huh, but cautioned that this may not be his real name, because the North Korean security services are known to “use […] fake names when referring to important persons” in their custody.

Hyun was reportedly a senior nuclear researcher at North Korea’s Academy of Sciences in Pyongyang, an institution that plays a crucial role in North Korea’s biological and nuclear weapons programs. According to RFA, Hyun defected while on vacation from his work. He traveled to the Chinese border to visit relatives, but did not file an application for travel documents. These are required for travel within North Korea. He then disappeared. On November 4, China Immigration Inspection officers arrested a large group of undocumented North Korean nationals in the city of Dandong, reportedly after receiving a tip by North Korean intelligence. Among them was Hyun, who was involuntarily sent back to North Korea on November 17 by the Chinese authorities.

As is common practice with captured North Korean defectors, the scientist was placed in solitary confinement in Sinŭiju, a city on the Yalu River right across the Chinese border. But when guards entered Hyun’s cell to take him to his first interrogation, they found him dead. The source told RFA that Hyun “killed himself only a few hours after he was placed in solitary confinement at the State Security Department in Sinuiju city”. Hyun’s death was reportedly caused by poison, which he is believed to have taken with the intent of taking his own life. There was no explanation of where and how Hyun was able to secure the poison. “He must have been searched many times while being taken from China to Sinuiju, so it’s a mystery how he was able to conceal the poison he took”, the source told RFA. The source added that upon his arrest Hyun did not tell Chinese Immigration Inspection officers that he was a nuclear scientist. Doing so would probably have averted his expulsion back to North Korea.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 29 December 2017 | Permalink

Kim Jong-un lacks confidence, will not start war, says senior N. Korean defector

https://intelligencenews.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/first-post-h6.jpg?w=630North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has consolidated his position by killing hundreds of domestic critics in recent years, but he lacks confidence and will not go to war against outside powers, according to a senior North Korean defector. Ri Jong-ho was a senior official in North Korea under its previous leader, the late Kim Jong-il. He rose through the ranks of the Workers’ Party of Korea and was directly mentored by Kim, who personally appointed him to a post in Bureau 39. The powerful body is in charge of securing much-needed foreign currency for Pyongyang —often through illegal activities— and partly funds the personal accounts of the ruling Kim dynasty.

But Ri’s mentor, Kim Jong-il, died in 2011. Distrustful of his son and successor, Kim Jong-un, Ri defected with his family to South Korea in October 2014; fifteen months later, in March 2016, he arrived in the United States. Speaking at an event hosted by the Asia Society in New York earlier this week, Ri said he decided to defect after Kim Jong-un issued orders for the execution of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who was vice chairman of the National Defense Commission of North Korea. Along with Jang, said Ri, hundreds of military officers who were faithful to him were also executed. In many cases, their families were also killed or sent to concentration camps. It was through these purges, said Ri, that Kim consolidated his power in North Korea after 2013.

Commenting on the heightened rhetoric between Pyongyang and Washington, Ri insisted that North Korea’s decision to develop a nuclear arsenal was not a direct threat, but rather a clear sign of Pyongyang’s weakness. North Korea has always felt directly threatened by South Korea and its Western ally, the United States, said Ri, and resorts to “tough rhetoric” in order to compensate for its social and economic weakness. Pyongyang’s rhetoric, therefore, “does not guarantee escalation”, said Ri, adding that Kim Jong-un lacks confidence. The high-profile defector added that the North Korean regime has grown increasingly isolated, even for China, which adds to its vulnerability. Kim Jong-un does not trust China, said Ri, and often refers to the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, as “a dog”. Ri concluded his remarks in New York by stating that the heightened rhetoric from North Korea was a distraction aimed at concealing the regime’s crumbling economy and fear of the economic might of its southern neighbor.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 October 2017 | Permalink

Seizure of Egypt-bound ship reveals North Korea’s illicit trade in arms

Suez CanalThe seizure earlier this year of a North Korean ship secretly carrying thousands of weapons for use by the Egyptian military has revealed the scale of one of Pyongyang’s most profitable money-making ventures: global arms sales. Experts say that the North Korean state continues to supply thousands of tons of Cold-War-era conventional weapons to countries such as Eritrea, Cuba, Burma and Iran, as well as to some American allies, including as Egypt. There is also evidence that at least two non-state militant organizations, including the Lebanon-based group Hezbollah, are among Pyongyang’s customers. The latter take advantage of North Korea’s vast arsenal of weapons produced in the 1960s and 1970s, which are being sold on the international arms market at very low prices.

The Washington Post’s Joby Warrick reports that, in August of this year, American intelligence officials notified authorities in Egypt of a potentially suspicious transport ship named Jie Shun. The ship had been registered in Cambodia and was flying the Cambodian flag. However, its entire crew was North Korean and it had last sailed from North Korea, bound for Egypt. Its manifest said it carried hundreds of tons of iron ore. Acting on the tip from the United States, armed Egyptian customs officers boarded the ship as soon as it entered the Suez Canal. Upon inspecting the Jie Shun, the Egyptians found hidden 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades. The discovery was later described by the United Nations as “the largest seizure of ammunition in the history of sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”.

Remarkably, says Warrick, the ammunition had been purchased in secret by a consortium of Egyptian businessmen, who had hoped to resell it to the Egyptian military. It is believed that the businessmen had paid in excess of $23 million for the illicit cargo, with the money ending up in the coffers of the North Korean government. The ship’s North Korean origin had been completely hidden through its “flag of convenience” registration in Cambodia, which allowed the ship’s owners to claim that the its home port was in the Southeast Asian country. According to Warrick, who cites unnamed US officials, the discovery of the Jie Shun’s illicit cargo contributed to the recent decision of US President Donald Trump to hold back on approximately $300 million in military aid to Egypt that Washington had planned to give to Cairo in July.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 October 2017 | Permalink

Australia rejected CIA request to open embassy in North Korea

PyongyangAustralia rejected a secret request by the United States Central Intelligence Agency to open an embassy in North Korea, which the Americans hoped to use as a base from where to collect intelligence on the communist state. According to The Australian newspaper, Washington approached the Australian government because it is one of the few pro-Western governments that continue to maintain cordial diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. Up until 1975, Australia was a rare example of a country that hosted embassies of both South Korea and North Korea on its soil. But when Canberra took South Korea’s side in a United Nations vote, the North Koreans objected by shutting down their embassy in Australia. A quarter of a century later, in 2000, Pyongyang reopened its embassy in the Australian capital, only to close it down again in 2008, due to financial constraints.

Throughout that time, Australia has maintained relatively smooth diplomatic relations with North Korea, but has refrained from opening a residential mission in the communist country. Instead, employees of Australia’s embassy in South Korea occasionally travel to the North to perform diplomatic tasks. But in 2014, the US Department of State reached out to Canberra to request that the Australian government consider the possibility of establishing a permanent residential mission in Pyongyang. According to The Australian, the request came from the CIA, which hoped to use the Australian embassy as a base from where to collect intelligence on the isolated country. The US, which lacks an embassy in North Korea, has always found it difficult to collect intelligence there.

The American request was promptly communicated to the then-Prime Minister Tonny Abbott and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop. Both appeared willing to consider Washington’s proposal. But the civil servants of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who were tasked with putting together a cost-benefit analysis of the request, came back with a negative response. They allegedly contacted their colleagues working in other countries who maintain permanent residential diplomatic missions in Pyongyang. They told them that their consular employees are kept in complete isolation from North Korean society and government. Additionally, they are subjected to constant surveillance by the North Koreans, who are extremely suspicious of all foreign diplomats. Moreover, Canberra was worried that opening an embassy in Pyongyang would inevitably be seen by the North Koreans as an invitation to reopen their embassy in Australia. It would require significant effort and resources to monitor the activities of North Korean diplomats, who are notorious for abusing their diplomatic status by engaging in illicit activities of all kinds.

Eventually, therefore, the US request was rejected by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The latter concluded that Canberra should not proceed with opening a new embassy in Pyongyang, despite the allegedly “strong suggestion” of the CIA. The matter, said The Australian, never reach the cabinet and Washington never brought it up again.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 September 2017 | Permalink

Ukraine releases rare footage showing arrests of North Korean nuclear spies

North Korean SpiesUkrainian authorities have released rare surveillance footage filmed during a sting operation that ended with the capture of three North Korean spies. The North Koreans, two of whom are now serving prison sentences in Ukraine, had traveled there in 2011 believing they would be given missile technology secrets. Last July, North Korea surprised missile technology experts by successfully testing two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Government-controlled media in Pyongyang claimed that North Korean ICBMs were capable of reaching the United States’ mainland.

On August 14, a report by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) suggested that North Korea’s technological leap had been achieved with assistance from abroad. The report claimed that one possible source of North Korea’s technical advancement was the Yuzhnoye Design Office, a corporation that specializes in the design of rockets and satellites. Based in the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro, Yuzhnoye has its roots in the Soviet space and weapons program of the early 1950s. Following the publication of the IISS report, some experts claimed that North Korean spies may have illicitly purchased or stolen missile designs from Yuzhnoye. Ukrainian authorities strongly denied these allegations, and argued that Russia was a far more likely source of North Korea’s technical knowledge —something that Moscow refutes. In an effort to strengthen their claims, Ukrainian officials were authorized to release details of counterespionage operations against North Korean spies in recent years. They told the US-based news network CNN that several North Korean spies had been caught spying in Ukraine in recent years, and that Ukraine responded in 2016 by barring all North Koreans from entering the country.

The Ukrainians also released to CNN surveillance footage filed during a sting operation in 2011, in which three North Korean diplomats were caught photographing classified documents in Ukraine. The documents, which contained technical blueprints of missiles, were fake, and the operation had been planned by the Ukrainians several years prior. The three North Koreans had traveled to Ukraine from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s embassy in Moscow. One of the men, who had been tasked with transporting stolen hardware missile parts out of Ukraine, was deported following his arrest. His two accomplices are currently serving eight-year prison sentences in a Ukrainian prison located nearly 90 miles west of Kiev. Reporters from CNN were also granted access to the two North Korean prisoners, known only as “X5” and “X32”. The younger prisoner, who goes by X32, declined to be interviewed. But X5, who is in his mid-50s, told CNN that he was born in Pyongyang and that at the time of his arrest he was serving as a trade representative in the DPRK’s embassy in Belarus.

Ukrainian officials told CNN that the two men were visited in jail once by officials in the DPRK’s embassy in Moscow, but that was their only contact —face-to-face or otherwise— with North Korean citizens since their arrest. The officials argued that this information about Ukraine’s counterespionage operations against North Korean spies should help dispel all allegations that Pyongyang may have acquired its missile knowhow from Ukrainian sources.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 August 2017 | Permalink

North Korean state now uses cyber attacks to steal cash, says report

North KoreaNorth Korea’s intelligence establishment has shifted its attention from spying for political gain to spying for commercial advantage –primarily to secure funds for the cash-strapped country, according to a new report. Since the 1990s, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has used computer hacking in order to steal political and military secrets from its rivals. But there is increasing evidence that Pyongyang is now deploying armies of computer hackers in order to steal cash from foreign financial institutions and internet-based firms. This is the conclusion of a new report by the Financial Security Institute of South Korea, an agency that was set up by Seoul to safeguard the stability of the country’s financial sector.

The report, published last week, analyzed patterns of cyber attacks against South Korean state-owned and private financial institutions that took place between 2015 and 2017. It identified two separate computer hacking groups, which it named Lazarus and Andariel. According to the report, both groups’ activities, which are complementary, appear to be directed by the government of North Korea. An analysis of the groups’ targets suggests that Pyongyang has been directing its computer spies to find ways to secure hard currency for use by the government. Foreign currency has been increasingly hard to come by in North Korea in recent years, due to a host of international sanctions that were imposed on the country as a form of pressure against its nuclear weapons program.

Several cyber security experts and firms have claimed in recent months that North Korea has been behind recent cyber attacks against international banking institutions. The DPRK has also been blamed for a 2014 attack against the Hollywood studios of the Japanese multinational conglomerate Sony. Regular readers of intelNews will recall our story in March of this year about comments made on the subject of North Korea by Rick Ledgett, a 30-year veteran of the United States National Security Agency. Speaking at a public event hosted by the Aspen Institute in Washington, Ledgett expressed certainty that the government of North Korea was behind an attempt to steal nearly $1 billion from Bangladesh Bank —the state-owned central bank of Bangladesh—in 2016. Eventually the bank recovered most of the money, which were made through transactions using the SWIFT network. But the hackers managed to get away with approximately $81 million.

More recently, cyber security experts have claimed that the government of North Korea has been behind attempts to hack into automated teller machines, as well as behind efforts to steal cash from online gambling sites. In April of this year, the Russian-based cyber security firm Kaspersky Lab identified a third North Korean hacker group, which it named Bluenoroff. The Russian experts said Bluenoroff directed the majority of its attacks against foreign financial firms. There are rumors that Pyongyang was behind the wave of WannaCry ransomware attacks that infected hundreds of thousands of computers in over 150 countries in May. But no concrete evidence of North Korean complicity in the attacks has been presented.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 July 2017 | Permalink