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

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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

North Korea secretly imports Russian oil through Singapore, says defector

Ri Jong-hoThe government of North Korea uses intermediary firms in Singapore to import thousands of tons of Russian oil each year, according to a senior North Korean defector who has spoken publicly for the first time since his defection. Ri Jong-ho was a senior official in the Democratic People’s Republic of 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.

From the mid-1990s until his 2014 defection, Ri spent nearly three decades in senior positions inside the DPRK. These included the chairmanship of the board of the Korea Kumgang Group, a state-managed firm that oversees large-scale economic activity in North Korea, such as constructing energy networks and commissioning oil and natural-gas exploration. Between 1998 and 2004, Ri lived in the Chinese city of Dalian, where he headed the local branch of the Korea Daesong Trading Corporation. The Pyongyang-based company facilitates North Korea’s exports to China in exchange for Chinese goods and products.

But Ri’s mentor, Kim Jong-il, died in 2011. His son and successor, Kim Jong-un, engaged in a brutal campaign to remove his father’s advisers and replace them with his own people. During that time, said Ri, thousands of senior and mid-level officials were purged, some physically. Frightened and disillusioned, Ri defected with his family to South Korea in October 2014; fifteen months later, in March 2016, he arrived in the United States. On Tuesday, the Voice of America published Ri’s first public interview since his defection.

Among other things, the former Bureau 39 official said that the North Korean regime sustains itself with the help of oil it imports from nearby countries. One of the regime’s main sources of energy is Russia, which supplies Pyongyang with between 200,000 and 300,000 tons of oil every year. But the trade does not occur directly, said Ri. Moscow sells the oil to energy-trading companies in Singapore. These mediators then sell the oil to the DPRK through separately agreed contracts, so that Russia does not appear to be providing Pyongyang with desperately needed oil. The so-called “Singapore line” was established by North Korea in the 1990s, said Ri, and appears to still be active. In addition to Russian oil, the DPRK imports approximately 500,000 tons of oil per year from China, through pipelines, according to Ri.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 June 2017 | Permalink

Did North Korean leader’s brother meet with a US spy before he was assassinated?

Kim Jong-nam murderThe exiled half-brother of North Korea’s leader, who was assassinated in Malaysia in February, is thought to have met with a man believed to be an American intelligence officer shortly before he was killed, according to reports. Kim Jong-nam 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 on February 13 of this year. Kim was about to board a flight to Macau, where he had been living in self-exile with his family 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.

According to Malaysian investigators, who have been probing Kim’s murder, the estranged half-brother of the North Korean dictator arrived in Kuala Lumpur from Macau on February 6, a week before he was killed there. Two days later, on February 8, he traveled to Langkawi, a resort island in the Andaman Sea, located 20 miles from Malaysia’s mainland coast, near the Thai border. According to the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, a day after his arrival at Langkawi, Kim met with a man believed by Malaysian authorities to be in the employment of American intelligence. The man, who has not been named, is reportedly middle-aged, Korean-American with United States citizenship, and lives in Bangkok. The Osaka-based paper said that Malaysian police have accessed footage from the Langkawi hotel’s security cameras, which show Kim and the American man enter a hotel suite and staying there for nearly two hours before departing.

The newspaper further claims that Malaysian counterintelligence has been tracking the American man each time he has entered Malaysia from Thailand for quite some time, believing him to be a case officer. It is also thought that Kim had met the same man in Malaysia “several times in the past”, said Asahi Shimbun. The paper further states that Malaysian investigators believe the meeting between Kim and the American man was the reason behind North Korea’s decision to kill him. The American man reportedly left Malaysia on February 13, the same day Kim was assassinated in Kuala Lumpur.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 May 2017 | Permalink