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

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North Korea accuses US of murder plot as CIA opens new DPRK mission center

North KoreaThe United States Central Intelligence Agency has announced the establishment of a new center focusing on North Korea, shortly after Pyongyang accused Washington of plotting to assassinate its supreme leader. Last week, the regime’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Han Song Ryol, said the CIA tried to kill North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. He was speaking during a meeting with foreign diplomats in the North Korean capital, where he repeated previously stated claims by government officials that American spies had tried to assassinate their country’s leader. According to Pyongyang, the plot involved an attack by a North Korean CIA agent, who had been trained in the use of a biochemical weapon by his handlers. The North Koreans also accuse South Korea of collaborating with the alleged CIA assassination plot, claiming that Seoul either bribed or blackmailed the would-be assassin.

Meanwhile, the CIA announced last week that it has established a dedicated center focusing on developments in the Korean peninsula. The purpose of the center, said the CIA, is to “address […] the nuclear and ballistic missile threat posed by North Korea”. There are only 11 such centers in the CIA, which the Agency calls “Mission Centers”. They focus on specific issues or locations around the world, in accordance with the geopolitical priorities of the US policymaker community, led by the White House. The establishment of a dedicated Korean Mission Center is designed to reflect the elevation of the North Korean government’s missile program to a critical foreign-policy issue by the administration of US President Donald Trump.

The new Mission Center will be located at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and will bring together several intelligence analysts and even operations officers from a variety of directorates and units across the Agency. The goal of the new Center, according to the CIA, is to “integrate [these individuals] in one entity” in order to produce regular situation reports and analytical forecasts from the troubled region. Speaking to reporters late last week, CIA spokeswoman Heather Fritz Horniak said that the new Mission Center would allow Langley to “harness the full resources, capabilities and authorities of the Agency” in dealing with Pyongyang. But she refused to comment on North Korea’s allegations that the CIA tried to assassinate the communist state’s leader.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 17 May 2017 | Permalink

CIA director makes unannounced visit to South Korea to discuss tensions

Korean DMZThe director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency made an unannounced visit to South Korea over the weekend, to discuss the rising tensions in the Korean Peninsula with his South Korean counterpart and other senior officials. A spokesperson from the US embassy in Seoul made an official announcement on Monday, in which he revealed the visit by Mike Pompeo, the CIA director who was appointed by US President Donald Trump in January of this year. When asked for details, however, the spokesperson refused to provide them. Consequently, Pompeo’s date of arrival to Seoul remains unknown, as is his date of departure. It is believed that he is now back in the US.

During his visit to the South Korean capital, Pompeo met with South Korean counterpart, Lee Byung-ho, who heads South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. South Korean media reports said Pompeo also met with senior officials in the office of the South Korean president. Additionally, he is said to have held several meetings with American intelligence and military officials stationed in South Korea, including a meeting with General Vincent Brooks, commander of United States Forces Korea. Reports in local media outlets said Pompeo’s visit aimed to coordinate American and South Korean intelligence responses to what Washington claims is increasing provocation by North Korea. The United States objects to North Korea’s repeated missile tests in recent weeks. On Saturday, Pyongyang attempted to launch a missile without success. The attempt, the third one in a month, elicited strong criticism from Washington and Seoul.

Pompeo’s trip to Seoul marked the fourth visit to South Korea by a senior US government official in recent weeks. The CIA director’s unannounced visit was preceded by separate official visits to Seoul by US Vice President Mike pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Additionally, last Wednesday the White House organized an “extraordinary national security briefing” about North Korea for members of the United States Senate. The briefing featured presentations by senior American diplomats and military officials.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 02 May 2017 | Permalink

North Korea is now robbing banks, says US intelligence official

North KoreaComments made by a senior American intelligence official on Tuesday appeared to suggest that the North Korean government was behind an attempt to steal nearly $1 billion from a Bangladeshi bank last year. The heist took place in February of 2016, when a computer malware was used to issue several requests to transfer funds from Bangladesh Bank —the state-owned central bank of Bangladesh— using the SWIFT network. The hackers were able to transfer five separate sums of $101 million each to a linked Bangladesh Bank account at New York’s Federal Reserve Bank. However, when further requests were issued, Federal Reserve Bank employees contacted Bangladesh Bank and blocked further transactions. Eventually, most of the transferred funds, which neared $1 billion, were recovered; but the hackers managed to get away with approximately $81 million worth of funds.

Forensic investigators described the heist as technically advanced. The antivirus company Symantec said it identified a piece of code in the malware that is known to have been used by North Korean government hackers in the past. Not everyone agreed with the claim that Pyongyang was behind the bank heist. But those who did, said that it was unprecedented in scope and aggressiveness. Some even said that the heist showed that North Korea’s cyber capabilities were among the most sophisticated and powerful in the world.

Meanwhile the United States government did not comment on the matter. However, this past Tuesday the deputy director of the National Security Agency appeared to confirm reports that North Korea was behind the Bangladesh Bank heist. Rick Ledgett, a 30-year veteran of the NSA, who is due to retire in 2018, was speaking at a public event hosted by the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC. He reminded the audience that private researchers had connected the malware code used in the Bangladesh Bank heist with that used in previous hacking attempts launched by North Korea. “If that linkage […] is accurate”, said Ledgett, it “means that a nation state is robbing banks”. When asked by the moderator whether he believes that to be the case, Ledgett responded “I do. And that’s a big deal”. Foreign Policy magazine reached out to Ledgett following his talk and asked him for clarification about his comments regarding the Bangladesh Bank heist. But the NSA official simply said that “the public case [about the heist] was well-made”. Foreign Policy also contacted the NSA, but the agency said it preferred not to comment on the matter.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 March 2017 | Permalink

Malaysia assassination highlights North Korea’s network of front companies

North KoreaThe sensational assassination of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, on February 13, revealed much about the current operational mindset of Pyongyang. But it also brought to light the shady network of front companies set up by the North Korean regime to facilitate the country’s illicit financial activities around the world. This extensive network permits Pyongyang to evade international sanctions against it, and to coordinate the activities of hundreds of clandestine operatives around the world. Through these activities, the reclusive country has been able to develop its weapons of mass destruction program unabated, despite concerted efforts by the United Nations to prevent it from doing so.

Writing for Forbes, Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea Studies and director of the program on US-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes that the UN has for many years employed sanctions to “block international financial and material support for North Korean nuclear and missile development efforts”. But now the UN’s own experts have concluded that Pyongyang has been able to evade these sanctions so skillfully that it has “largely eviscerated the intent and impact of UN sanctions resolutions”. How has it done so? Mostly through a network of countries that routinely turn a blind eye to North Korea’s illicit activities. These include several countries in the Middle East, as well as Singapore, China, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Pyongyang maintains an extensive network of front companies in these countries, says Snyder, with the main purpose of enabling it to evade international sanctions against it.

Malaysia has been a primary hub of North Korean illicit activity. In that, Pyongyang has been crucially assisted by the fact that —until last week— North Korean citizens could travel to Malaysia without entry visas. Malaysia thus provides a useful base for dozens of North Korean front companies, such as Glocom, which ostensibly markets radio communications equipment, or Pan Systems Pyongyang, which just happens to trade in exactly the kind of commercial items that could be described as “dual-use goods” in UN sanctions resolutions. Pan Systems is connected to several Malaysian-based subsidiaries, including International Global Systems and International Golden Services, which, according to investigators, are operated by North Korean intelligence.

Many of these companies also serve as exporting and importing hubs for Pyongyang. In the last five years, several ships have been intercepted while carrying illicit cargo dispatched from North Korea or destined for the reclusive state. In one such instance in 2013, the Jie Shun, a Cambodian-registered ship with a North Korean crew, was found to be carrying over 30,000 rocket propelled grenades hidden under thousands of tons of iron ore. The shipment was intended for an “undisclosed Middle Eastern destination”, says Snyder and was traced to a firm called “Dalian Haoda Petroleum Chemical Company Ltd.”. Many of these mysterious firms are headquartered in China, registered in Hong Kong, but actually work on behalf of North Korea, often using banking facilities in Europe and the United States to conduct financial transactions.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 March 2017 | Permalink

Indonesia to investigate North Korean restaurant reportedly used as spy base

Pyongyang Restaurant in Jakarta, IndonesiaIndonesian authorities said on Sunday that they will investigate a North Korean restaurant in the country, after a Singaporean news agency claimed it was being used as a center for espionage. The announcement comes amidst heightened tensions between North Korean and its neighbors, following the murder last week in Malaysia of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il. 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. Sources in South Korea and the United States have pointed at Pyongyang as the culprit of the assassination.

On Friday of last week, the Singapore-based news agency Asia One published a lengthy report into alleged North Korean espionage operations in Southeast Asia. The report claimed that North Korean intelligence agencies have operated extensive networks of operatives in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, and that these networks have operated unimpeded for over two decades. The news agency cited an unnamed “intelligence source” as saying that the spy networks are operated by North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB). The RGB is in charge of special activities abroad, which include covert operations and intelligence collection involving espionage. It operates under the Ministry of State Security and answers directly to North Korea’s supreme leader.

According to Asia One, the RGB maintains some of its largest spy networks abroad in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, where Kim Jong-nam met a gruesome death last week. RGB personnel operating in these countries are North Korean citizens who are employed in the construction sector, as well as the tourism industry. Some operate North Korean restaurants, which are popular tourist attractions across Southeast Asia. The unnamed intelligence source told Asia One that North Korean restaurants serve “as a main front to conduct intelligence gathering and surveillance [against] Japanese and South Korean politicians, diplomats, top corporate figures and businessmen”. The RGB’s network in Indonesia is based in textile factories located in several Indonesian cities, said Asia One. There is also “an apartment located above a North Korean restaurant in [the Indonesian capital] Jakarta that is part of the RGB Indonesia office”, according to the report.

Following the news agency’s allegations, Argo Yuwono, senior commander for the Indonesian National Police, said that an investigation would take place into Asia One’s allegations. He said that his detectives would coordinate their activities with the Indonesian Foreign Ministry before moving ahead with the probe.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 February 2017 | Permalink

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