Two women arrested for assassinating North Korean leader’s half-brother

Kim Jong-namTwo women have been arrested in the past 48 hours in connection with the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korea’s supreme leader, who died in Malaysia on Monday. Kim, the grandson of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung, died after two women approached him at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and splashed his face with liquid poison. Some reports suggest that he was injected with a poisoned needle. According to Malaysian media, Kim was about to board a flight to Macau, where he had been living in self-exile since 2007. His relations with his brother, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, and the regime in Pyongyang, were adversarial, and some suggest that he had survived at least one assassination attempt in the past.

On Wednesday, Malaysian authorities announced the arrest of a woman carrying a Vietnamese travel document, which identified her as Doan Thi Huong (also reported as Doan Thin Hoang). No elaboration was offered on whether the travel document is genuine or forged. The 28-year-old woman is believed to have been arrested at the same airport where Kim’s assassination took place. Apparently she returned there by herself on Wednesday to catch an outbound flight to Vietnam, but was recognized by security personnel through the airport’s closed-circuit television monitoring system. Another woman, carrying an Indonesian passport, was arrested on Thursday in connection with the assassination, but no information was released about her. Some reports in the Malaysian media suggested that the second woman had been observed wandering around the Kuala Lumpur International Airport immediately following Kim’s assassination. It is believed that her co-conspirators inadvertently left her behind as they escaped the scene of the crime. Malaysian police said they also arrested a taxi driver who transported the women to the airport on the morning of the assassination. Four males, who are also believed to have helped organize the attack, remain at large.

Meanwhile South Korean and American government sources told news agencies that the assassins are thought to be agents of the North Korean government. Malaysian media said that senior North Korean diplomats were dispatched to Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday and held lengthy meetings with Malaysian government officials. Reports suggest that Pyongyang exercised pressure on Malaysian officials to cancel a planned post mortem examination of Kim’s body. But the request was allegedly denied. Malaysian officials did not respond to queries about whether Kim’s body will be handed to North Korea or flown to China for burial.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 February 2017 | Permalink

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North Korean leader’s half-brother killed by female assassins in Malaysia

DPRK assassinThe half-brother of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has been killed in an audacious attack in Malaysia, reportedly by two female assassins who used a poisonous substance to murder him. Kim Jong-nam, was the eldest son of Kim Jong-il, and grandson of Kim Il-Sung, who founded the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948. However, he left the country in 2007, reportedly after it became clear that his younger half-brother, Kim Jong-un, was the regime’s preferred successor to his father, Kim Jong-il.

Since that time, it is believed that the self-exiled Kim split his time between Singapore and China, and that he had a residence in the former Portuguese colony of Macau. It is also believed that he employed a variety of passports, including South Korean, Portuguese and Swiss, some of which were reputed to be forgeries. Even though Kim kept a relatively low profile in the past decade, relations between him and the North Korean regime were adversarial. He made occasional comments to the press that were critical of the government in Pyongyang, and at times criticized his half-brother’s character and actions. Intelligence sources in South Korea claimed that the DPRK tried to kill him at least once in the past.

It appears that Pyongyang may have finally managed to kill Kim on Monday morning, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia’s main international flight hub and one of Southeast Asia’s largest. The attack is believed to have taken place at 9:00 a.m. at the airport’s economy class terminal, where Kim was waiting to board a 10:00 a.m. flight to Macau. According to Malaysian news media, Kim was approached by two women, one of whom attacked him from behind. The female suspect reportedly covered Kim’s face with a “cloth laced with a poisonous liquid” that burned his eyes. A frantic Kim managed to run away and alert an airport employee, who called an ambulance. According to police, the victim told paramedics that someone had grabbed him from behind and “splashed a burning liquid on his face”. Some reports claimed that Kim was attacked with a poisonous needle or acid spray. According to Malaysian police spokesman Fadzil Ahmat, the grandson of North Korea’s founder expired on the way to a nearby hospital.

It was later confirmed that, at the time of his death, Kim was using a North Korean passport issued under the name “Kim Chol” and giving his date of birth as June 10, 1970. However, the travel document is believed to have been forged. Malaysian authorities said on Tuesday they had been unable to identify the suspects, but that an investigation was ongoing. Early on Wednesday, Malaysian authorities released CCTV footage of one of the suspects (pictured). Meanwhile, Kim’s body has been subjected to an autopsy, but the results remain unavailable. South Korean authorities told the Reuters news agency that Kim had been killed by assassins working for the North Korean government.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 February 2017 | Permalink

Observers speak of uncertainty as North Korean leader fires spy chief

kim jong unObservers of North Korean politics raised alarm bells over the weekend, as it emerged that Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un fired his spy chief, interfering for the first time with a state institution that had not until now experienced major purges. The news circulated on Friday, following a report by South Korea’s Ministry of Unification —Seoul’s government department responsible for promoting the reunification of Korea. The ministry said that, according to its sources in the North, General Kim Won-hong had been dismissed from his post as Minister for State Security.

Kim is believed to have joined the Korean People’s Army (KPA) in 1962, at age 17. He rose through the ranks of the military to become a commander and a commissar (political officer) with the KPA’s General Political Bureau. In 1998, Kim was elected to North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly, which functions as the country’s parliament. In 2003, the North Korean leadership appointed Kim to director of the Military Security Command —the North Korean Army’s intelligence directorate. By 2009, Kim had been made a General and had entered the personal circle of Kim Jong-un. In 2011, when Kim Jong-un became supreme leader of North Korea, General Kim was widely viewed as one of his most trusted advisors. Few were surprised, therefore, when Kim was made State Security Minister, in April 2012. From that position, General Kim oversaw the activities of the regime’s secret state police, North Korea’s most powerful security institution, which is answerable only to the country’s supreme leader.

But it now appears that General Kim was dismissed from his powerful post two weeks into 2017, allegedly on charges of corruption and abuse of state power. Some reports suggest that his dismissal may be related to the defection of Thae Yong-ho, a senior North Korean diplomat who defected with his family while serving in the country’s embassy in London last year. It is also believed that Kim was demoted from a four-star to a one-star general.

Since he assumed power in the country in late 2011, Kim Jong-un has purged several layers of elite government apparatchiks. But he has not interfered in the country’s intelligence and security agencies. Thus, if General Kim was indeed dismissed, it would mark the first major demotion of a senior official in the Ministry of State Security in over six years. Some observers suggest that Kim’s demotion may mark the beginning of a major round of purges in the country’s security and intelligence services. But others think that that Kim was demoted by the country’s supreme leader in a pre-emptive action aimed at preventing a possible military coup against him.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 February 2017 | Permalink

North Koreans are studying nuclear physics in Japan, say human rights activists

ChongryonStudents who have pledged allegiance to North Korea are being taught advanced courses in nuclear physics and control engineering in Japan, which violates United Nations sanctions, according to human rights campaigners. The students take classes at Korea University, a higher-education institution located in in Kodaira, a western suburb of the Japanese capital Tokyo. The University is funded directly by the government of North Korea through Chongryon, a pro-Pyongyang organization otherwise known as the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan. The group represents tens of thousands of ethnic Koreans living in Japan, who are ideologically affiliated with Pyongyang.

But an organization called Human Rights in Asia has accused the Korea University of offering advanced technical courses on subjects related to nuclear engineering. According to the organization, the courses directly violate UN sanctions aimed at preventing North Korea from further-developing its nuclear weapons program. Human Rights in Asia is a partner with Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Freedom House, and others, in a worldwide campaign calling itself the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea. The Japanese director of Human Rights in Asia, Ken Kato, claims that the Korea University curriculum directly violates the UN sanctions imposed on Pyongyang. His organization recently submitted a petition about the topic to the UN Security Council Committee pursuant to resolution 1718. The Committee was set up in 2006 to monitor sanctions placed on North Korea, after the country announced that it possessed nuclear weapons. The petition claims that the Korea University’s curriculum violates several paragraphs of the UN sanctions resolution, which forbid the provision of specialized teaching and training on subjects relating to nuclear science. The petition also accuses the Korea University of operating as “a center for North Korea’s espionage activities in Japan”.

In February of this year, authorities in South Korea arrested an associate professor of Korea University in Japan on espionage charges. Pak Chae Hun, 49, a citizen of Japan, allegedly operated as an intelligence handler for North Korean sleeper agents operating in South Korea, Japan and China. South Korean counterintelligence officials said they intercepted encrypted email messages sent to Pak from Japan. The messages allegedly contained instructions from Office 225 of the North Korean Workers’ Party Korea, which is tasked with overseeing the activities of sleeper agents operating in South Korea. Pak is also accused of having provided North Korean agents with telephone devices and ATM cards, which they used to withdraw cash from banks in South Asia.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 December 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

North Korea resumes Cold-War-era radio broadcasts for its spies abroad

Voice of KoreaIn a development that is reminiscent of the Cold War, a radio station in North Korea appears to have resumed broadcasts of encrypted messages that are typically used to give instructions to spies stationed abroad. The station in question is the Voice of Korea, known in past years as Radio Pyongyang. It is operated by the North Korean government and airs daily programming consisting of music, current affairs and instructional propaganda in various languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, French, English, and Russian. Last week however, the station interrupted its normal programming to air a series of numbers that were clearly intended to be decoded by a few select listeners abroad.

According to the South Korean public news agency, Yonhap, the coded segment was broadcast on shortwave at 12:45 a.m. on Friday, July 15. It featured a female announcer slowly reading a series of seemingly random numbers from an instruction sheet. The announcer began the segment by stating that she would “now provide a review on the topic of mathematics, as stipulated by the distance-learning university curriculum for the benefit of agents of the 27th Bureau”. She went on to read a series of numbers: “turn to page 459, number 35; page 913, number 55; page 135, number 86; page 257 number 2”, etc. This went on for approximately 12 minutes, said Yonhap.

The technique described above is informally known as ‘numbers stations’, and was extensively used by both Western and communist countries during the Cold War to send operational instructions to their intelligence personnel stationed abroad. Armed with a shortwave radio, an intelligence officer would turn to the right frequency on a pre-determined date and time, write down the numbers read out and proceed to decrypt them using a ‘number pad’, a tiny book that contained the key to deciphering the secret message aired on the radio. But the era of the Internet, mobile phones and microwave communications has caused the demise of ‘numbers stations’. The latter are rarely heard nowadays, though a number of nations, including Cuba, South Korea and Israel, are believed to still use them.

The last time North Korea is thought to have employed ‘numbers stations’ to contact its spies stationed abroad was in the spring of 2000, prior to the historic first Inter-Korean Summit that featured a face-to-face meeting of the then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and the then North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il. Since that time, the North Koreans are believed to have stopped deploying broadcasts to communicate with their intelligence operatives in foreign countries. Yonhap quoted an unnamed South Korean government source as saying that last Friday’s broadcast was the first number sequence aired by Pyongyang in over 16 years. According to the news agency, the broadcast has Seoul worried about “possible provocations” that may be planned by North Korean spies living secretly in the south.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 July 2016 | Permalink