Three former South Korean spy chiefs charged with illegally diverting secret funds

NIS South KoreaA South Korean prosecutor has charged three former directors of the country’s spy agency of secretly diverting funds from the agency’s clandestine budget to aid the country’s disgraced former President, Park Geun-hye. The three men, Nam Jae-joon, Lee Byung-kee and Lee Byung-ho, headed South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) between 2013 and 2016, when Mrs. Park was head of state. The conservative politician was impeached late last year, following accusations of corruption, bribing and extortion. In March this year, Mrs. Park’s government was brought down and she is currently in prison, awaiting trial. Her successor in the presidency, leftist politician Moon Jae-in, was elected after pledging to combat corruption in South Korea’s political inner circle.

As part of his anti-corruption campaign, Mr. Moon has overseen the purging of numerous senior officials from the NIS, after the agency admitted that it tried to influence the outcome of the 2012 presidential election in favor of Mrs. Park. In the latest round of corruption charges, the three former directors of the NIS are accused of funneling payments of between $45,000 and $91,000 a month to the office of the president. The cash allegedly came from what the prosecutors described as “special operational funds” and was meant for highly secret undercover operations. As such, it were not subject to parliamentary oversight or annual audits, according to prosecutors. The secret funds were allegedly used by Mrs. Park for bribes in exchange for political favors, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors claim that the indictments of the three former NIS chiefs reveal high-level collusion between Mrs. Park’s conservative Liberty Korea Party, also known as the Grand National Party, and the spy agency. Earlier this month, two presidential aides who served under Mrs. Park were arrested for transferring the cash payments in briefcases from the NIS to the president’s office. Two of the three former NIS directors, Nam Jae-joon and Lee Byung-kee were denied bail and are currently in jail. The third, Lee Byung-ho, was not deemed to be a flight risk and remains free while preparing his defense.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 20 November 2017 | Permalink

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South Korean former spy chief sent to prison for meddling in elections

Won Sei-hoonThe former director of South Korea’s main intelligence agency has been sent to prison for organizing a large-scale illegal campaign to influence the result of the country’s 2012 presidential election. Won Sei-hoon headed the NIS from 2008 to 2013, during the administration of conservative President Lee Myung-bak. During the 2012 presidential election, 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. Mr. Moon succeeded his main right-wing rival, Park Geun-hye, who resigned in March of this year following a series of financial scandals. She is now facing charges of bribery, abuse of power, leaking government secrets, and corruption.

In February 2015, the Seoul High Court upheld an earlier sentence of 2.5 years in prison, which had been imposed on Won by a lower court. But his conviction was overturned on appeal. Earlier this August, an internal inquiry conducted by the NIS found that many its officers were tasked by Won to manipulate the outcome of the 2012 presidential election with 30 dedicated teams of officers —some of whom were hired specifically for that purpose. A number of teams were in charge of creating fake social media accounts and using them to post negative views of Mr. Moon and positive views of his conservative rival, Mrs. Park. Other teams were tasked with creating the false impression that South Korea’s rival, North Korea, was supportive of Mr. Moon’s candidacy. The probe also found that the NIS launched similar —though on smaller scale— efforts to influence the outcome of parliamentary elections in 2011 and 2012.

On Wednesday, based on new evidence provided by the government, including the results of the NIS’ internal investigation, the Seoul High Court sentenced Won to four years in prison for political meddling. Two other former senior officials in the NIS were sentenced to 30 months in prison each. In delivering his sentence, the judge said Won assembled a team of NIS operatives “with the specific intention to sway public opinion”. Throughout the operation, said the judge, Won was “regularly briefed” and exercised precise control over it. Won was transferred directly from the court to prison, where he will serve his sentence.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 30 August 2017 | Permalink

South Korea spy agency admits secret plan to influence 2012 election result

Moon Jae-in and Suh Hoon in South KoreaAn internal investigation has found that the intelligence agency of South Korea tried to steer the result of the 2012 presidential election in favor of the conservative candidate, and placed liberal politicians under surveillance in the run-up to the election. South Korea’s intelligence agency, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) has fallen into disrepute in recent years, after it was 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 his staff to use social media to spread negative views of liberal politicians. He is now facing a second trial, after his conviction was overturned on appeal. Mr. 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. Mr. Moon succeeded his main right-wing rival, Park Geun-hye, who resigned in March of this year following a series of financial scandals. She is now facing charges of bribery, abuse of power, leaking government secrets, and corruption.

An internal inquiry has now found that the NIS tried to manipulate the outcome of the 2012 presidential election with 30 dedicated teams of officers —some of whom were hired specifically for that purpose. A number of teams were in charge of creating fake social media accounts and using them to post negative views of Mr. Moon and positive views of his conservative rival, Mrs. Park. Other teams were tasked with creating the false impression that South Korea’s rival, North Korea, was supportive of Mr. Moon’s candidacy. The probe also found that the NIS launched similar —though on smaller scale— efforts to influence the outcome of parliamentary elections in 2011 and 2012. Additionally, the NIS placed a number of opposition politicians under surveillance.

Since his ascendance to power last spring, Mr. Moon has pledged that the NIS will be reformed and that it will stay out of domestic politics. In June of this year, Mr. Moon announced that the domestic intelligence wing of the NIS would be dissolved.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 07 August 2017 | Permalink

North Korean state now uses cyber attacks to steal cash, says report

North KoreaNorth Korea’s intelligence establishment has shifted its attention from spying for political gain to spying for commercial advantage –primarily to secure funds for the cash-strapped country, according to a new report. Since the 1990s, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has used computer hacking in order to steal political and military secrets from its rivals. But there is increasing evidence that Pyongyang is now deploying armies of computer hackers in order to steal cash from foreign financial institutions and internet-based firms. This is the conclusion of a new report by the Financial Security Institute of South Korea, an agency that was set up by Seoul to safeguard the stability of the country’s financial sector.

The report, published last week, analyzed patterns of cyber attacks against South Korean state-owned and private financial institutions that took place between 2015 and 2017. It identified two separate computer hacking groups, which it named Lazarus and Andariel. According to the report, both groups’ activities, which are complementary, appear to be directed by the government of North Korea. An analysis of the groups’ targets suggests that Pyongyang has been directing its computer spies to find ways to secure hard currency for use by the government. Foreign currency has been increasingly hard to come by in North Korea in recent years, due to a host of international sanctions that were imposed on the country as a form of pressure against its nuclear weapons program.

Several cyber security experts and firms have claimed in recent months that North Korea has been behind recent cyber attacks against international banking institutions. The DPRK has also been blamed for a 2014 attack against the Hollywood studios of the Japanese multinational conglomerate Sony. Regular readers of intelNews will recall our story in March of this year about comments made on the subject of North Korea by Rick Ledgett, a 30-year veteran of the United States National Security Agency. Speaking at a public event hosted by the Aspen Institute in Washington, Ledgett expressed certainty that the government of North Korea was behind an attempt to steal nearly $1 billion from Bangladesh Bank —the state-owned central bank of Bangladesh—in 2016. Eventually the bank recovered most of the money, which were made through transactions using the SWIFT network. But the hackers managed to get away with approximately $81 million.

More recently, cyber security experts have claimed that the government of North Korea has been behind attempts to hack into automated teller machines, as well as behind efforts to steal cash from online gambling sites. In April of this year, the Russian-based cyber security firm Kaspersky Lab identified a third North Korean hacker group, which it named Bluenoroff. The Russian experts said Bluenoroff directed the majority of its attacks against foreign financial firms. There are rumors that Pyongyang was behind the wave of WannaCry ransomware attacks that infected hundreds of thousands of computers in over 150 countries in May. But no concrete evidence of North Korean complicity in the attacks has been presented.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 July 2017 | Permalink

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

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