New South Korean president bans spy agency’s domestic operations

Moon Jae-in and Suh Hoon in South KoreaThe new president of South Korea has officially banned the country’s spy agency from engaging in domestic intelligence gathering, in a move that some say signals an era of sweeping security reforms in the country. South Korea’s intelligence agency, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) fell into disrepute in recent years, after many of its officers were found to have secretly sided with conservative political candidates for public office. In 2015, the NIS’ former director, Won Sei-hoon, was jailed for directing intelligence officers to post online criticisms of liberal politicians.

Won headed the NIS from 2008 to 2013, during the administration of conservative President Lee Myung-bak. During the 2012 presidential elections, Won ordered a group of NIS officers to “flood the Internet” with messages accusing liberal political candidates of being “North Korean sympathizers”. One of those candidates, Moon Jae-in, of the left-of-center Democratic Party of Korea, is now the country’s president. Moon succeeded his main right-wing rival, Park Geun-hye, who resigned in March of this year following a series of financial scandals. In the months prior to his assumption of the presidency, Moon promised his supporters that he would reform the NIS and prevent it from meddling again into South Korea’s domestic political affairs.

Last Thursday, President Moon replaced all of NIS’ deputy directors, who are tasked with focusing on North Korea and other foreign countries, espionage and terrorism, and cyber security. Later on the same day, Moon announced the appointment of Suh Hoon as director of NIS. Suh is a career intelligence officer who served as one of NIS’ deputy directors until Thursday’s appointment. Within hours of his appointment, Suh had ordered the termination of all NIS domestic intelligence-gathering operations and vowed to reform the spy agency once and for all. He also said that he would proceed to dissolve the NIS’ domestic wing, and that all such tasks would be transferred to South Korea’s National Police Agency. The new NIS director also vowed that, under his leadership, the NIS would become “a completely different entity” and that he would apply “a zero tolerance principle” in cases of contravention by NIS officers.

Also on Thursday, the NIS issued a press release stating that all domestic operations by the agency had been terminated and that no information was being gathered on government entities, media or other organizations in South Korea.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 June 2017 | Permalink

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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

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

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