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

Senior South Korean officials’ cell phones hacked by North: report

NIS South KoreaDozens of cell phones belonging to senior government officials in South Korea were compromised by North Korean hackers who systematically targeted them with texts containing malicious codes, according to reports. The National Intelligence Service (NIS), South Korea’s primary intelligence agency, said the cell phone penetrations were part of a concerted campaign by North Korea to target smart phones belonging to South Korean senior government officials. Once they managed to compromise a cell phone, the hackers were able to access the call history stored on the device, the content of text messages exchanged with other users and, in some cases, the content of telephone calls placed on the compromised device. Moreover, according to the NIS, the hackers were able to access the contact lists stored on compromised cell phones, which means that more attacks may be taking place against cell phones belonging to South Korean government officials.

The breach was considered critical enough for the NIS to host an emergency executive meeting with the security heads of 14 government ministries on Tuesday, in order to update them on the situation and to discuss ways of responding to the crisis. According to Korean media, the emergency meeting took place on Tuesday and lasted for over three hours. During the meeting the NIS told ministry representatives that the North Korean operation was launched in late February and was ongoing as of early this week. It specifically targeted government officials and appeared to concentrate on their cell phones, instead of their office phones –probably because the latter are known to be equipped with advanced anti-hacking features. The government employees’ cell phones were reportedly attacked using text messages and emails containing links to web sites that downloaded malicious codes on the users’ phones.

The NIS did not specify the precise purpose of the hacking operation, nor did it explain whether the attacks were informed by an overarching strategic goal. The officials targeted work for a variety of government ministries, but there is no clarification as to whether any operational or administrative links between them exist. The NIS did say, however, that approximately a fifth of all attacks against cell phones were successful in compromising the targeted devices.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 March 2016 | Permalink

S. Korea police says professor was secret handler of N. Korea spies

Chongryon A Korean resident of Japan, who was arrested in South Korea for credit card fraud, was allegedly a handler of North Korean sleeper agents operating in South Korea, Japan and China, according to police in Seoul. Pak Chae Hun, 49, was arrested on Tuesday at his home in Seoul by officers of the Public Security Bureau of the Metropolitan Police Department. A statement issued by South Korean police said Pak was until recently an associate professor at Korea University, a higher-education institution based in 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.

Pak was initially investigated for purchasing computer hardware in Japan using a credit card he had obtained from a Korean company using a false identity and date of birth. But when South Korean police authorities raided his home, they found encrypted messages written on scraps of paper. Further investigations detected encrypted email messages sent to Pak from Japan. According to government sources in Seoul, the messages turned out to contain 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. South Korean authorities now claim Pak was regularly receiving encrypted instructions from Pyongyang, which he relayed to North Korean agents in China and South Korea.

South Korean sources said Pak also provided North Korean agents with telephone devices, as well as cash and ATM cards, which they used to withdraw cash from banks in South Asia. Police sources in Seoul say Pak was recruited by North Korean spies over 15 years ago and regularly traveled to China to meet North Korean agents there. The former professor is now facing fraud charges, while South Korean authorities are considering the possibility of charging him with espionage, even though he was not caught in the act of spying against South Korea.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 February 2016 | Permalink