If Kim Jong-un can’t trust his own spies and assassins, who can he trust? (updates)

The revelation last weekend that a colonel in North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau, or RGB, defected to South Korea last year represents a huge potential windfall in uncovering North Korea’s operations in the South. Reuters quotes Yonhap as reporting that the colonel “specialized in anti-South espionage operations before defecting and had divulged the nature of his work to South Korean authorities.” The Korea Herald, also citing Yonhap, reports that he gave “detailed testimony” on RGB operations in the South. Or so says the National Intelligence Service “an unnamed source with knowledge on the inner workings of the communist state.” 

Historically, the RGB’s operations have included not only intelligence collection, but also extensive influence operations and assassinations of dissidents in exile. The RGB is believed to be behind the sinking of the naval ship Cheonan, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, and North Korea’s cyberattacks against the United States and South Korea. It is designated by the U.N. Security Council for arms dealing, and by the U.S. Treasury Department under Executive Order 13687. This defector’s information may help the NIS foil assassination plots, terrorist attacks, or cyberattacks. It could potentially support criminal prosecutions of North Korean leaders, including General Kim Yong-chol or His Porcine Majesty himself.

This man assuredly knows where many bodies are buried, and that is more than a metaphor.

The South Koreans also revealed two other defections, both by diplomats. One “oversaw economic affairs at the North Korean embassy in an African nation” and was fortunate enough to escape with his wife and two sons last May, over “life-threatening” concerns. The other was posted in an unnamed Asian country, and defected in February, when “Pyongyang was moving to cut and call in the staff at overseas diplomatic missions.” 

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This being South Korea during an election week, the revelations have South Korea’s opposition party and some left-of-center commenters in a tizzy, accusing President Park’s government of deliberately timing the announcement to influence the upcoming National Assembly elections. Deutsche Welle swallows this narrative hook, line, and sinker, investing more faith in the conspiracy theory than in the veracity of the reports of the defections. Indeed, DW’s report yields the most breathtakingly oblivous delusion of skepticism I’ve ever seen:

“The media in South Korea has very low standards of quality,” says Jean Lee, who in 2012 opened the first bureau of The Associated Press in Pyongyang. Many reports are based only on anonymous sources, without any cross-checking. “I rarely allowed my colleagues to pick up South Korean media reports about North Korea,” Lee told DW. [Deutsche Welle]

Really, Jean? Even lower standards of quality than this?

Seven billion people on this planet, and DW manages to find the one person who may be the least qualified to offer a sweeping generalization of the media in South Korea, after having made and lost a career by picking up obviously staged, highly politicized North Korean reports about South Korea. In this case, it was left to other reporters to investigate and question whether the narrative Lee’s bureau echoed globally was a fiction built on North Korean threats against this woman’s family — threats that probably would have been delivered by the RGB. And as long as we’re engaging in sweeping generalizations of entire nationalities, do German reporters ever do their homework on the sources they quote?

Although it’s never safe to eliminate political shenanigans as a motive for the actions of governments, this particular theory is strained and illogical. After all, a defection in 2015 — when the Blue House had no coherent North Korea policy at all — hardly bolsters an argument that its much more coherent 2016 policy is working. Surely the Blue House would have anticipated the ease with which the opposition could refute an argument that its policies had worked retroactively. Unfortunately, South Korea’s political culture is so conspiratorial that many news readers begin and end their analysis with conspiratorial explanations. But this isn’t a safe assumption, either.

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There is a more logical explanation, and it might even satisfy those of you who also demand a conspiratorial one. I also suspect that Seoul is working a political mindf**k here, but the more likely target isn’t South Korean voters, it’s His Corpulency. A logical chain of chronological events supports my speculation. The first link is the recent defection of the entire staff of a North Korean restaurant. The fact that Seoul announced that mass defection publicly is “unusual,” in that it departs from what Yonhap calls Seoul’s previous “low-key stance on the issue of North Korean defectors.” Seoul appears to be using the issue to pressure Pyongyang politically, by showing that the restaurant defection was not a one-off, and that the core class is increasingly a wavering class. 

The revelation of this group defection also coincides with other reports of unexplained closures of North Korean restaurants. Adam Cathcart photographed the aftermath of one in Dandong. An intrepid AP correspondent called dozens of North Korean restaurants all over Asia and found that one in Da Nang, Vietnam had also recently and suddenly closed without explanation. There were also some early reports that a restaurant in Yanji was the source of the defections (could it be another unexplained closure?). Eventually, Yonhap went with a version in which the 13 came from Ningpo, in northeastern China, via Thailand and Laos.

Given reports that sanctions are preventing the restaurants from repatriating currency or paying staff, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn of more defections from North Korean restaurants over the next several months. Indeed, The Korea Herald cites “a top Unification Ministry official” as stating “that some other left-behind colleagues may be seeking to follow suit, or on their way here now.” For its part, the regime has tightened its surveillance of the restaurant workers, assigned guards to watch them while they sleep, and banned them from going outside.

China has also acknowledged that the 13 came from a restaurant on its soil. Not even China could cover up a story this big. And while China’s allowance of passage for the 13 is encouraging, it’s not unprecedented. In the past, China has sometimes allowed groups of North Koreans to travel to South Korea if their cases became publicized, or if South Korea was forceful in demanding that they be granted safe passage. Presumably, one or both of those things happened in this case. China also seems to have lost some of its will to shield Pyongyang from embarrassment.

Fine, you say, so might Seoul have timed the restaurant incident for political gain? Not if the theory is that the Blue House is trying to show that its policies are working. Before North Korea’s January 6th nuclear test, the Blue House had no coherent North Korea policy at all. It didn’t shut down Kaesong until February 10th. The U.S. Congress didn’t pass sanctions until February 12th, and the President didn’t start to implement them until March. The U.N. Security Council only approved new sanctions against North Korea in early March. Given that member states have only just begun to implement those sanctions, we’re only starting to see their effects. Even in China, implementation is encouraging but uneven. In that light, it’s slightly surprising (but not implausible) that sanctions are already contributing to the defection of North Korean loyalists.

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In other words, the announcement of the defection of the RGB colonel now is more likely to coincide with the Ningpo restaurant incident, and a desire to influence the views of North Koreans, than with a desire to influence South Koreans before the election. Six months ago, a Unification Ministry spokesman would not have said that the defection of the RGB colonel “could be read as a sign of fissure at the top levels of North Korea’s regime,” or that it “could be seen as a sign that some of the North Korean elites were not happy under the supreme leader, Kim Jong-un.” Seoul appears, at last, to be returning some heavy fire in the psychological war Pyongyang has been waging against it.

Still, one colonel’s defection does not represent an identifiable upward trend in the number of recent defections from the security forces, although it’s arguably an upward movement in terms of rank. Last December, for example, two defectors from North Korea’s cyber warfare command, which would be subordinate to the RGB, accused the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology of training hackers. For years, reports have suggested that morale in the North Korean military is low, discipline is poor, and abuse and corruption are rife. Those reports have included multiple fraggings and defections. In 2010, a fighter pilot died in an apparent defection attempt, when his MiG-21 crashed in a Chinese cornfield.

Nor is this the only recent sign of flagging loyalty within the RGB’s officer corps. In 2010, the South Koreans arrested two RGB officers, Major Kim Yong-ho and Major Dong Myong-gwan, who were in South Korea on a mission to assassinate senior defector Hwang Jang-yop, an 87-year-old man who died of natural causes several months later. Those two field-grade officers not only let themselves be taken alive, but they pled guilty in open court and implicated their boss, North Korean terror master General Kim Yong-chol — now in charge of relations with South Korea — as having ordered the hit. This is not what we might have expected from a crack hit squad.

[This is.]

Even Pyongyang seems to have lost faith in the RGB, given its subsequent outsourcing of its next hit on Hwang to a bumbling team of South Korean drug dealers. 

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

Once again, this is not the behavior we’d expect from some of the most trusted members of the North Korean elite, unless the loyalties of the elite are wavering. In multiple recent cases, all that has stopped members of the “core” class from breaking with the regime has been the opportunity to do so. One wonders how many other members of the core class may be wavering. So must His Corpulency’s Secret Services, whose paranoia will beget more surveillance, more purges, and more discontent.

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Updates: 

  • This statement from Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se supports my theory: “This appears to be an example indicating that such incidents may continue if the North Korean regime continues to make the wrong choices, such as its development of nuclear weapons.” Yun warned that other group defections may follow if His Porcine Majesty continues with his current policies.
  • South Korean “sources” say that “[a]bout five to seven other North Koreans who used to work at a restaurant in the Chinese eastern port city of Ningbo are known to be hiding in other areas of China, biding their time before they make it to the South, according the sources.”
  • South Korea says it is putting some diplomats on the job of persuading other Asian countries to allow North Korean refugees safe passage. “There has been no trouble so far in our talks and cooperation with relevant nations,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck. “We are in close talks with relevant nations to help defectors come to South Korea if they so wish under humanitarian principles.”
  • The Unification Ministry says that North-to-South defections rose 17.5% during the first quarter of 2016, over the same period last year. The report doesn’t parse whether this represents an increase in actual flights from North Korea, or just an increase in arrivals in South Korea, of people who may have been hiding in China for years. That matters, because of what it tells us about the continued effectiveness of Kim Jong-un’s border crackdown, and whether corruption is starting to reverse it.

1 Comment

  1. North Korean operatives (both from the North and ROK natives) in the South are not the only ones who have reason to fear high-level defections by officials of the RGB and the United front Dept.

    I can think of a few folks right here in the US who could not only be embarrassed, but possibly in legal trouble if certain RGB and United Front Dept. officials who deal with pro-North activities in the US were to flee the North.

    I don’t refer to North Korean “spies” secretly photographing documents in the Pentagon, of course, but rather agents of influence and “trusted contacts” of North Korean officials at the UN.




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