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

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South Korean cabinet approves closer intelligence cooperation with Japan

South KoreaIn a move that highlights the thaw in relations between South Korea and Japan, the two nations appear to be closer than ever to entering an intelligence agreement with each other. In 2014, Washington, Seoul and Tokyo signed a trilateral intelligence-sharing agreement on regional security issues, with the United States acting as an intermediary. But a proposed new agreement between South Korea and Japan would remove the US from the equation and would facilitate direct intelligence-sharing between the two East Asian nations for the first time in history.

The proposed treaty is known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). Its centerpiece is a proposal to streamline the rapid exchange of intelligence between South Korean and Japanese spy agencies, especially in times of regional crisis involving North Korea. Last week, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense publicly gave GSOMIA its blessing by stating that Seoul’s security would benefit from access to intelligence from Japanese satellite reconnaissance as well as from submarine activity in the South Sea. On Monday, South Korea’s Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, Yoo Il-ho, announced after a cabinet meeting that GSOMIA had been officially approved by the government.

The agreement is surprising, given the extremely tense history of Korean-Japanese relations. Japan conquered the Korean Peninsula for most of the first half of the 20th century, facing stiff resistance from local guerrilla groups. After the end of World War II and Japan’s capitulation, South Korea has sought reparations from Tokyo. In 2014, after many decades of pressure, Japan struck a formal agreement with South Korea over the plight of the so-called “comfort women”, thousands of South Korean women and girls who were forced into prostitution by the Japanese imperial forces during World War II. Relations between the two regional rivals have improved steadily since that time.

The GSOMIA agreement will now be forwarded to officials in the South Korean Ministry of National Defense. The country’s defense minister is expected to sign it during a meeting with the Japanese ambassador to South Korea in Seoul on Wednesday, local news media reported.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 November 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

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

Jail for man involved in planned assassination of senior North Korean defector

Hwang Jang-yopAn appeals court in Seoul has upheld the conviction of a South Korean member of a spy cell that planned to assassinate the most senior North Korean defector to the South. The man, identified in media reports only by his last name, Park, is a South Korean citizen who allegedly helped a North Korean spy cell “based in China” plan the assassination of Hwang Jang-yop. In 1997, Hwang caused a sensation on both sides of the border when he defected to the South. A former secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party, Hwang was Pyongyang’s primary theorist and the ideological architect of juche, the philosophy of self-reliance, which is North Korea’s officially sanctioned state dogma. He was also believed to have ideologically mentored North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il, the father of the country’s current Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un. Until his death from heart failure in April 2010, Hwang, had been living in the South with around-the-clock security protection.

In October 2010, a few months before Hwang’s death, South Korean authorities revealed that two self-confessed North Korean spies, Tong Myong Kwan and Kim Myung Ho, had allegedly admitted to posing as defectors. Seoul said that Tong and Kim, who were both 36 at the time, were on an assassination mission assigned to them by the intelligence unit of the North Korean Ministry of Defense. The two reportedly stated under interrogation that they were selected for the mission in 2004 and were trained for six years in spy trade craft, as well as techniques of assimilating in life in South Korea, which apparently included “watching South Korean soap operas to gain a better understanding of South Korean society”.

At the time of Tong and Kim’s arrest, South Korean authorities had stated that the two alleged North Korean spies had been assisted by at least two South Korean citizens. One has never been named. The other, Park, was indicted last year of providing logistical support to foreign spies who were plotting to kill Hwang, in return for ₩25 million ($21,000). His legal team appealed the sentence, saying he had been framed by the North Koreans. But on Tuesday, the Seoul High Court rejected the Park’s appeal and upheld his original 3-year jail sentence.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 May 2016 | Permalink

S. Korean spy agency admits error, says ‘executed’ N. Korean general is alive

NIS South KoreaThe intelligence agency of South Korea has admitted it made an error when it claimed earlier this year that North Korean authorities had executed one of the regime’s most prominent military figures. On February 10, South Korean newspapers printed a series of articles suggesting that Pyongyang had executed General Ri Yong-gil, who led the Korean People’s Army (KPA), holding post that was equivalent to the United States’ chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The articles said at the time that the information about General Ri’s execution came directly from the National Intelligence Service (NIS), South Korea’s primary external spy agency. The general had allegedly been executed after being found guilty of “factionalism, abuse of power and corruption”. The reports added that General Ri had turned into an alcoholic and was in poor health as a result. Speculation as to the reason for General Ri’s alleged execution brought up the possibility that he had led an opposition faction within the KPA. This, in turn, led some analysts to speculate that the administration of Kim Jong-un was close to collapse.

However, after the seventh congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), which concluded on Monday, not only has the view of Kim’s rule as weak been overturned, but General Ri appears to have come back from the dead. On May 10, the Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the WPK, announced that General Ri had been appointed member of the WPK’s Central Military Commission. The announcement also said that the General would also be a candidate member of the Political Bureau of the WPK Central Committee, in accordance with the Committee’s wishes. It appears, therefore, that, not only is General Ri alive and well, but that he also features prominently the inner sanctum of the WPK’s political leadership.

Soon after Rodong Sinmun’s announcement, Hong Yong-pyo, South Korea’s Minister of Unification, told reporters in Seoul that the government would have to “check the details” of General Ri’s fate. An anonymous South Korean government official told newspapers that the NIS had assumed General Ri had been purged because he “hadn’t been seen for some time”. But critics of the government in Seoul accused the conservative administration of President Park Geun-hye of using “skewed perceptions” of the regime in Pyongyang in order to block negotiations with North Korea, and urged “some serious soul-searching” regarding the dependability of the NIS. IntelNews regulars will recall that Won Sei-hoon, who headed the NIS from 2008 to 2013, was jailed last year for interfering with national elections in order to further Park’s electoral power.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 May 2016 | Permalink

South Korea announces most high-profile defection from North since Korean War

North and South KoreaA North Korean intelligence official who sought refuge in South Korea last year is the most high profile defector to the South since the end of the Korean War in 1953, according to authorities in Seoul. An announcement issued by the South Korean government last week said the defector is a colonel in the Korean People’s Army who worked for the Reconnaissance General Bureau, a military-intelligence agency that resembles the United States Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division.

The initial announcement was made by a spokesman representing South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, which is the department of the government that is responsible for working towards the reunification of Korea. He said that the agency could not find any records of defectors that were of a more senior rank since the end of all-out hostilities in the Korean War. However, he declined to provide further details about the identity of the colonel and the details of his defection. Another spokesman, from South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, confirmed the high-profile defection but said he had not been authorized to release further information on the case. But he said that the Reconnaissance General Bureau had defected to the South “last year”, without giving a precise timeline. He added that the North Korean colonel was providing South Korea with details about Pyongyang’s intelligence operations against the South.

Prior to this latest case, the most high-profile defection to the South of a North Korean government figure was that of Hwang Jang-yop, a senior Pyongyang official who was seen as the architect of ‘juche’, the official state ideology of North Korea. During a visit to Beijing, China, in 1997, Hwang entered the embassy of South Korea and asked for political asylum. He died in South Korea in 2010.

It is extremely rare for Seoul to acknowledge defections from North Korea; the South Korean government typically cites privacy and security concerns in response to questions about defectors. The unusual step of announcing the defection of the North Korean colonel several months after the fact led some opposition liberal figures in South Korea to accuse the conservative government of trying to use the case in order to win votes in last Wednesday’s legislative elections. The election was an upset victory for the liberal Minjoo party, which managed to deny the conservative Saenuri Party a majority in the parliament.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 17 April 2016 | Permalink