South Korean spy agency says North Korean nuclear negotiators were not executed

Kim Jong-unThe spy agency of South Korea has dismissed media reports that North Korea had several of its top nuclear negotiators executed or sent to labor camps, but has not rejected rumors of a major reshuffle in Pyongyang. In early June, media reports in Seoul claimed that North Korea had executed at least five of its senior nuclear negotiators and imprisoned several others. Prior to these reports, rumors of executions of North Korean nuclear negotiators had circulated in international diplomatic circles since February, but no specific allegations had surfaced in the news media. That changed when Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s highest-circulation newspaper, alleged that at least five executions of nuclear negotiators had taken place in Pyongyang in March.

The paper claimed that the most senior North Korean official to be executed was Kim Hyok-chol, who led the nuclear negotiations with Washington prior to the Vietnam summit. The summit culminated with a —seemingly fruitless— face-to-face meeting between the North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump. Citing an “anonymous source” Chosun Ilbo said that Kim had been executed by a firing squad at the Pyongyang East Airfield in Mirim, a suburb of the North Korean capital. Four other Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials were executed at the same time, allegedly for having been “swayed by American imperialists to betray the Supreme Leader”, said the newspaper. Two more senior North Korean nuclear negotiators, Kim Yong-chol and Kim Song-hye, were allegedly stripped of their government posts and sent to labor camps, according to the report.

On Tuesday, however, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) directly contradicted Chosun Ilbo’s account. The spy agency told a closed-door meeting with members of parliament in Seoul that Kim Yong-chol had made recent appearances at senior-level events of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), and that Kim Hyok-chol was still alive. But the NIS did not rule out the possibility of a major reshuffle among the ranks of Pyongyang’s nuclear negotiators and the replacement of some of the top figures with new officials from the ranks of the WPK. Most international observers agree that Kim Jong-un is displeased with the impasse in the nuclear negotiations with Washington and has criticized —in some cases publicly— the performance of his team of negotiators.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 July 2019 | Permalink

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Son of South Korean foreign minister defects to North Korea

Choe In-gukThe son of a South Korean former cabinet minister has defected to North Korea, marking a rare instance of a citizen of South Korea switching his allegiance to the North. It is even rarer for such high-profile South Korean citizens to defect to North Korea. The defector is Choe In-guk, son of Choe Deok-sin, who served as South Korea’s minister of foreign affairs in the 1970s under the South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee. Choe was an American-trained army officer who served under United States command in the Korean War. He then served as a member of the cabinet and as South Korea’s ambassador to West Germany.

But by 1980, Choe had fallen out with the South Korean military government and was subsequently pushed out of the ruling Democratic Republican Party of Korea. He moved to the United States with his wife, Ryu Mi-yong, from where in 1986 the couple defected to North Korea. Soon after his defection, Choe was appointed director of North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland under the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). Until her death in 2012, Ryu served as chairwoman of the Chondoist Chongu Party, a nationalist North Korean political party that supports the policies of the ruling WPK.

North Korean media reported that Choe and Ryu’s son, Choe In-guk, arrived at the Pyongyang Sunan International Airport on July 6. The North Korean state-run news website Uriminzokkiri published several photographs of the 73-year-old Choe being greeted by a welcoming committee of North Korean government officials holding flowers and gifts. Choe is reported to have given a brief speech upon his arrival in Pyongyang, praising North Korea’s leader and lamenting not having defected earlier in his life. The defector added that he intended to devote the remainder of his life to continue the work of his parents and to push for the reunification of the two Koreas.

On Sunday, South Korean Ministry of Unification confirmed that Choe had defected to North Korea from the United States. The Ministry also said that Choe had not obtained permission to travel to North Korea, which is required of all South Korean citizens who wish to cross the border between the two countries. It appears that Choe first traveled to the United States and for there to a third country —possibly China— before entering North Korea. South Korean officials announced that an investigation into his defection has been launched.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 July 2019 | Permalink

Sister of N. Korean leader promoted to #2 position, says S. Korean spy agency

Kim Yo-jongThe younger sister of North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un appears to have been promoted to the number two position in the country’s ruling apparatus, according to a South Korean intelligence assessment. Until recently, Kim Yo-jong (pictured), 30, was Director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). She also served as an alternate member of the Political Bureau, which is the highest decision-making body within the WPK.

Recently, however, she was spotted attending public festivities in Pyongyang, sitting in a prominent position next to General Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of the WPK’s Central Committee. The festivities, which were televised nationwide, were held on the occasion of the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to North Korea. The seating of North Korean officials in such high-profile events is carefully arranged to reflect their precise status within North Korea’s governing structure. Kim’s seating placement may signify a major government reshuffle, through which she has been elevated to one of the two or three most powerful posts in North Korea.

This assessment was delivered to South Korean lawmakers on Tuesday in a closed-door presentation by the National Intelligence Service (NIS), South Korea’s primary external spy agency. A summary of the presentation was shared with the media by Lee Hye-hoon, chairman of the Intelligence Committee at the South Korean National Assembly. According to Lee, the NIS’s assessment was that Kim’s authority appeared to be “enhanced due to an adjustment of roles” and that she seemed to have been promoted to the leader level”.

At the same time, the leadership status of North Korea’s other high-profile female official, Kim Song-hye, appears to have diminished. As intelNews reported earlier this month, there were rumors in Seoul that the North Korean nuclear negotiator had been stripped of her government post and sent to a labor camp. She was reportedly charged with having been “swayed by American imperialists to betray the Supreme Leader”. However, she reappeared on June 9, when she was seen attending a mass gymnastics ceremony in the North Korean capital. However, her public role appears notably muted in recent weeks.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 June 2019 | Permalink

Trump says US will not use spies on North Korea, then appears to retract statement

Trump CIA - JFUnited States President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that he would not allow American intelligence agencies to use spies against North Korea, raising eyebrows in Washington, before appearing to backtrack a day later. The American president was speaking to reporters at the White House on Tuesday, when he was asked about a report that appeared in The Wall Street Journal that day. According to the report, Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, held regular meetings with officers of the US Central Intelligence Agency before he was assassinated with VX nerve gas at a busy airport terminal in Malaysia in February 2017. The Wall Street Journal’s claim was echoed by a book written by Washington Post correspondent Anna Fifield, which also came out on Tuesday. In the book, entitled The Great Successor, Fifield claims that Kim had traveled to Malaysia to meet his CIA handler when he was killed.

On Tuesday, President Trump said he had seen “the information about the CIA, with respect to [North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s] half-brother. And I would tell [Kim] that would not happen under my auspices, that’s for sure”, said the US president, before repeating, “I wouldn’t let that happen under my auspices”. Reporters interpreted Trump’s comments to mean that he would not use human assets or any other kinds of informants to collect intelligence on the regime of the North Korean leader. As can be expected, the US president’s remarks raised eyebrows among lawmakers and national security experts in Washington. It was suggested that Trump appeared to voluntarily eliminate a potentially invaluable tool of intelligence collection from America’s arsenal. The president’s comments were even more peculiar given the hermetically sealed nature of the North Korean regime, which Western spy agencies would argue necessitates the use of human assets for intelligence collection. Moreover, President Trump’s comments appeared to once again place him at odds with his own Intelligence Community, as previously in the cases of Iran’s nuclear program, the current status of the Islamic State, or Russia’s meddling in American political life.

On Wednesday, however, the US president appeared to backtrack on his comments. When asked at a joint press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda about his earlier remarks, Trump denied that he had implied the US would not use spies to collect information on North Korea. “No, it’s not what I meant”, the president responded to the reporter who asked him the question. “It’s what I said and I think it’s different, maybe, than your interpretation”, said President Trump, but refused to elaborate on what he actually meant with his statement on Tuesday. The Reuters news agency contacted the CIA seeking an official statement on the US president’s remarks, but the agency said it had no immediate comment on the issue.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 June 2019 | Permalink

North Korean leader’s half-brother worked with CIA before his death, paper claims

Kim Jong-nam murderKim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, held regular meetings with American intelligence officers before he was assassinated with VX nerve gas at a busy airport terminal in Malaysia. Two women approached Kim Jong-nam as he was waiting to board a plane at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on February 13, 2017. The estranged half-brother of the North Korean leader was about to travel to the semi-autonomous Chinese territory of Macau, where he had been living in self-exile since 2007. Soon after his encounter with the two women, Kim collapsed and eventually died from symptoms associated with VX nerve agent inhalation.

But a new book published on Tuesday by a Washington Post reporter, and an article that came out in The Wall Street Journal on the same day, allege that Kim Jong-nam was working with the United States Central Intelligence Agency and was in fact in Malaysia to meet with his American spy hander when he was killed. The Wall Street Journal article said that many details of Kim Jong-nam’s precise relationship with the CIA remain “unclear”. It is doubtful that the late half-brother of the North Korean leader had much of a powerbase in the land of his birth, where few people even knew who he was. So his usefulness in providing the CIA with crucial details about the inner workings of the North Korean regime would have been limited. However, the paper quoted “a person knowledgeable about the matter” as saying that “there was a nexus” between the CIA and Kim. The article also alleges that Kim met with CIA case officers “on multiple occasions”, including during his fateful trip to Malaysia in February of 2017.

In her just-published book The Great Successor, Anna Fifield, a correspondent with The Washington Post, claims that Kim spent a number of days on the island of Langkawi, a well-known resort destination in Malaysia. Security footage at his hotel showed him meeting with “an Asian-looking man [Korean-American, according to The Wall Street Journal] who was reported to be an American intelligence [officer]”. It was one of regular trips Kim took to places like Singapore and Malaysia to meet his spy handlers, according to Fifield, who cites “someone with knowledge of the intelligence”. She adds that, although meeting with this CIA handler may not have necessarily been the sole purpose of Kim’s fateful trip to Malaysia, it was certainly a major reason. Fifield alleges that the backpack Kim was carrying when he was killed at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport was found to contain $120,000 in cash. The Wall Street Journal claims that, in addition to meeting with the CIA, Kim held regular meetings with spy agencies of other countries, including China.

Meanwhile, two South Korean government agencies, the National Intelligence Service and the Ministry of Reunification, said on Tuesday that they were unable to confirm that Kim was indeed an asset of the CIA or any other intelligence agency. They also said that they could not confirm whether Kim had traveled to Malaysia to meet with a CIA case officer at the time of his assassination.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 June 2019 | Permalink

North Korea said to have executed senior nuclear negotiators as ‘spies’

Kim Song-hye Kim Hyok-cholNorth Korea has executed at least five of its senior nuclear negotiators and imprisoned several others, according to a report in a leading South Korean newspaper. Rumors of executions of North Korean nuclear negotiators have circulated in international diplomatic circles since February, but specific allegations have not surfaced in the news media. That changed on Friday, when Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s highest-circulation newspaper, said that at least five executions of nuclear negotiators took place in Pyongyang in March.

According to the paper, the most senior North Korean official to be executed was Kim Hyok-chol (pictured), who led the nuclear negotiations with Washington until February, when the North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un met US President Donald Trump in Vietnam. Citing an “anonymous source” Chosun Ilbo said on Friday that Kim was executed by a firing squad at the Pyongyang East Airfield in Mirim, a suburb of the North Korean capital. Four other Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials were executed at the same time, allegedly for having been “swayed by American imperialists to betray the Supreme Leader”, said the newspaper. Two more senior North Korean nuclear negotiators, Kim Yong-chol and Kim Song-hye (also pictured), have been stripped of their government posts and sent to labor camps, according to the report. Until recently, Kim Song-hye headed the Bureau of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, Pyongyahg’s main agency for negotiations with South Korea. Kim Yong-chol was one of several vice-chairs of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. He visited Washington with Kim Song-hye for negotiations prior to last February’s high-level summit in Vietnam.

There have been no reports in North Korean media about purges of senior officials or executions of alleged spies. However, the three officials named in the Chosun Ilbo report have not been seen in public in nearly a month. Additionally, last week the official Workers’ Party of Korea newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, published an editorial that condemned “counter-party and counter-revolutionary actions” of government officials who “claim to labor for the Supreme Leader […] but clandestinely harbor other machinations behind the back of the Supreme Leader”. The New York Times reached out to the South Korean and American governments about the Chosun Ilbo report, but no-one would comment on record. If the Chosun Ilbo report is accurate, it would support the view that there is exasperation in Pyongyang about the breakdown of its nuclear negotiations with Washington. It would also signify that Kim has radically reshuffled his team of negotiators, but this does not necessarily denote a change in his negotiating stance.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 June 2019 | Permalink

Malaysia releases second female assassin of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother from prison

Siti AisyahThe second of two female assassins who killed the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2017 in Kuala Lumpur has been released from prison by the Malaysian state, after a mostly secret trial. The two women, Doan Thi Huong of Vietnam and Siti Aisyah of Indonesia (pictured), approached Kim Jong-nam as he was waiting to board a plane at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on February 13. The estranged half-brother of the North Korean leader was about to travel to Macau, where he had been living in self-exile since 2007. Soon after his encounter with the two women, Kim collapsed and eventually died from symptoms associated with VX nerve agent inhalation. Huong was arrested on February 15, when she returned to the same airport to catch an outbound flight to Vietnam. Siti’s arrest was announced a day later.

Both women told Malaysian police that they worked as escorts and that they were under the impression that they had been hired by a Japanese YouTube show to carry out a televised prank on an unsuspecting traveler. They claimed that they did not realize that the men who had hired them several months prior to the assassination operation were agents of the North Korean government —which international authorities blamed for Kim’s murder. In March of this year, Malaysian authorities announced that all charges against the Indonesian woman, Siti, had been dropped, and that she would be released from detention. No reasoning behind the decision was provided to the media. On Thursday, it was revealed that Huong would be freed, after she agreed to plead guilty to a much lesser charge of “causing bodily injury”, as requested by government prosecutors.

What is behind the decision of the Malaysian court? British newspaper The Guardian said last month that the government of Indonesia engaged in intense “behind-the-scenes diplomacy” in order to have its citizen released. These efforts “significantly influenced how events […] unfolded in the courtroom”, said the paper. Additionally, the Malaysian government had been uncomfortable with the international attention of this incident from the very beginning, and had expressed the desire “to be done with the trial because it was diplomatically inconvenient”, according to The Guardian. The paper added that, as the international status of Kim Jong-un rose unexpectedly through his meetings with United States President Donald Trump, Malaysia sought to be “part of this conversation”. Kuala Lumpur thus decided that “the recovery of [its] relationship with Pyongyang [was] more important than justice for the assassination of Kim Jong-nam”, former South Korean intelligence officer Dr. Nam Sung-wook told The Guardian.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 May 2019 | Permalink