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

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Head of CIA’s Korean mission center to resign, say sources

Andrew KimA senior North Korea expert in the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who has been instrumental in the ongoing negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, has tendered his resignation, according to sources. The official was identified last may by US media as Andrew Kim, a former South Korean citizen who moved to the US with his parents when he was 13 years old. According to sources, Kim joined the CIA after graduating from college and rose through the Agency’s ranks to serve its stations in Moscow, Beijing and Bangkok. His most recent overseas post was reportedly in Seoul, where he served as the CIA’s station chief —the most senior American intelligence official in the country.

Following his return to the US from Seoul, Kim reportedly retired, but returned last year to head the CIA’s new Korea Mission Center (KMC). The purpose of the specialized unit is to analyze Pyongyang’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, which the administration of US President Donald Trump considers as matters of priority for the White House. It was as head of the KMC that Kim reportedly met Mike Pompeo once he became Director of the CIA in January 2017. The two men worked closely together and it is believed that Kim’s role was instrumental in organizing the negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang that led to last summer’s historic high-level meeting between President Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. According to American and South Korean media, Kim accompanied the then-CIA director on his secret trip to North Korea. He also accompanied Pompeo on his trips to North Korea once the Kansas Republican became Secretary of State.

The Yonhap News Agency said on Tuesday that Kim initially intended to leave his CIA post in the summer, but was persuaded by Secretary Pompeo to continue. However, he has now tendered his resignation, which will take effect on December 20. Citing “multiple sources”, including “a senior official at South Korea’s National Intelligence Service”, the Seoul-based news agency said that Kim plans to take up an academic post at Stanford University, adding that he intends to continue serving as an adviser to the secretary of state. Prior media reports have stated that “Kim is widely viewed as a hawk on North Korea”, so there are suspicions that his departure from the CIA stems from his disagreement with the policy of negotiation signaled by President Trump. However, the CIA has not commented on the Yonhap report. The South Korean agency said that the CIA is already reviewing candidates to succeed Kim.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 November 2018 | Permalink

North Korea asked Israel for $1 billion to stop giving missile technology to Iran

Thae Yong-HoNorth Korea offered to stop selling missile technology to Iran and other enemies of Israel in exchange for $1 billion in cash from the Jewish state, according to former senior North Korean diplomat who has now defected. The account of the offer can be read in Password from the Third Floor, a book published earlier this year by Thae Yong Ho. Thae, a member of a prominent North Korean family, defected with his wife and children in 2016, while he was serving as a senior member of the diplomatic staff of the North Korean embassy in London. News of Thae’s defection emerged on August 16, 2016, when a South Korean newspaper reported that he had disappeared from London after having escaped with his family “to a third country”. Thae later emerged in Seoul, from where he publicly denounced the North Korean regime.

Now Thae has written a book about his experiences as a North Korean diplomat from a family that is close to the country’s ruling Kim dynasty. In his memoir, Thae claims that he acted as a translator during a series of meetings between Son Mu Sin and Gideon Ben Ami, respectively North Korea’s and Israel’s ambassadors to Sweden. The alleged meetings took place in secret in the winter of 1999 in Stockholm, says Thae. During the first meeting, Son allegedly told Ben Ami that Pyongyang had a series of agreements to sell ballistic missile technology and know-how to Israel’s adversaries, such as Syria, Pakistan and Iran. However, the North Korean government would be willing to scrap the agreements in exchange for $1 billion in cash from Israel, said Son. Ben Ami reportedly told his North Korean counterpart that he would pass along his offer to the Israeli government. Three days later, says Thae, the two men held another secret meeting, during which the North Korean ambassador was told that Israel was not willing to pay Pyongyang $1 billion in cash. However, it could offer humanitarian aid of equal value. But according to Thae the North Koreans refused and “the talks ended without an agreement”.

It is believed that North Korea then went ahead and supplied both Syria and Iran with missile and nuclear technology. On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported that it contacted the government of Israel with several questions stemming from Thae’s account of the alleged diplomatic exchange of 1999. However, it received no response. The paper also tried to elicit responses from Ben Ami and Son, but had no success. According to The Journal, Ben Ami said during a television interview last week that he held three meetings with a group of North Korean officials in 1999. But he did not name the diplomats, nor did he discuss the subject of his conversations with them.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 July 2018 | Permalink

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

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

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 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