At the time of the ongoing inter-Korean crisis, we can draw attention to one of its aspects: how the South has been actively fanning the fears of new terrorist or spy scandals, which are apparently about to break out. This time it is not about cliche “Pyongyang hackers” but the activities of North Korean spies.
According to the international Korean radio and a number of other sources, “amid increasing international pressure on Pyongyang, there are concerns about the safety of citizens of the Republic of Korea during their stay in the area of Chinese-North Korean border”. It turns out that in recent years, the Chinese border city of Dandong has seen an upturn in media activities concerned with changes in NK after the adoption of the anti-North Korean resolution by the UN Security Council. Meanwhile, according to the intelligence services, the North is planning kidnappings and provocations against members of the South Korean media and religious leaders. “According to one North Korean defector, who formerly served in the border division of the KPA,” the work of journalists collecting all sorts of information about NK is being constantly monitored by the military of the North. He also noted that “the NK intelligence agencies hire Chinese citizens to spy on Korean journalists whose security may be threatened. For example, it is believed that the citizens of the Republic of Korea Kim, Jeong-wook and Kim Guk Ki, that are being held by the North, were actually kidnapped. In this regard, the Government of the Republic of Korea calls on journalists and religious leaders located in the vicinity of the Chinese-North Korean border to exercise caution.
The distortions here are even visible at first glance, not least because the details of the detention of Kim Jeong-wook and Kim Guk Ki are known well enough. Neither the former nor the latter story can qualify as the abduction of a person outside the DPRK.
One gets the feeling that, instead of crying “wolf”, South Korean intelligence is trying to cover up for possible failures, which might be made public. Perhaps it is in this context that we should consider the case of Kim Dong-chul.
On March 25, a US citizen of South Korean origin (moved to America aged 19), 62-year-old Kim Dong-Chul, who was arrested in North Korea in October 2015, held a detailed press conference, the results of which cannot be cast out as completely fabricated even after being adjusted for North Korea’s love of putting on a show.
So, Kim confessed that in 2001, he moved to the city of Yanji in the territory of Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture (Jilin province, North East China), which is a center of trade between China and the DPRK. Then he went to the Rason Special Economic Zone on the North Korean side of the border, where he worked as president of a company offering services in the sector of trade and hospitality on an international scale;
∙ In 2011, he was contacted by ROK intelligence officers, who guided him and provided the means for him to systematically collect a variety of data, including military information, for the South Korean intelligence services: he was required to provide data on the situation in the Rason Special Economic Zone, on warships, the nuclear program of the North, on the standard of living of the local population, as well as on the country’s economic reforms. “I was tasked with photographing military secrets and controversial items”, he said.
∙ Kim commenced his espionage in April 2013 by bribing the locals with the aim of “gathering important materials, which he transferred to China or South Korea”. When asked whether he has ever worked for the USA, Kim gave a negative answer;
∙ He was detained in the Rason District of North Korea during a meeting with his informant, a former North Korean military official, in order to receive USB memory sticks, which contained information about military facilities of the country;
∙ For nearly two years of espionage in North Korea, Kim earned about $5,300. When asked why he risked his freedom for such a paltry sum, Kim said that “it’s not about the money”.
∙ Kim said that he is in good health. He is given three meals a day, and is not being kept in prison, but a hotel. It is the privilege of the detained foreign nationals who have not yet been formally charged. He also has access to local newspapers and television.
Note that this is not his first statement. On January 11, in an interview with CNN, Kim Dong-chul said something similar, however stating that he engaged in espionage to aid ” South Korean conservative elements” rather than intelligence services.
The latter seems quite important to me. If North Korea does not differentiate between professional spies (employees of the security services) and amateur spies (that, if requested, become agents of required intelligence), then we should keep in mind that subversive activities against the DPRK are directed by state organizations in the US and the ROK as well as various NGOs. In this context, it seems that talks of a possible kidnapping near the Chinese-North Korean border are a poorly veiled attempt by Seoul to cool down the heads of those marginalized Protestant sects that are so eagerly trying to organize “Christian resistance” in the DPRK that get ahead of themselves and are frankly doing Seoul a disservice. It is clear that, by analogy with a number of events in other countries, you can call the detention of this pastor in the DPRK abduction by the North Korean secret services from China, but this explanation will only satisfy a certain segment of the South Korean audience, as a series of high-profile cases involving the illegal entry of missionaries into North Korea remains in circulation. It suffices to refer to several publications by the author written on this subject over the last year (at least the case of pastor Lim).
And here is another interesting piece of news: Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported that two people, one allegedly a North Korean defector, and the other a Chinese citizen, were detained at the border between China and North Korea. The suspects allegedly planned to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the city of Hoeryong in North Hamgyong Province.
This story has a rather vague origin – it appeared in Asia Press, citing an unnamed source in North Korea, but the Western newspapers soon began to comment on the news. In general, experts have expressed doubts about the authenticity of the story, believing that it was planted in the media by the North Korean authorities to gain popular support in the run-up to the Seventh Congress of the WPK, but at the moment the North Korean media have no mention of the averted attempt on the leader’s life. That is why the news cannot be rebuffed as fake and it is worth the wait of the moment when the suspects appear before the public, similarly to the previous stories.
Another detail: Asia Press noted that “terrorists” failed to cross the border river: the North Korean security forces went to China and transported the suspects to Pyongyang. This could mean that in reality the detention of potential killers was carried out by the Chinese secret services that could have been watching the anti-North Korean activity conducted by a citizen of their country.
At this point it is timely to bring up a number of rumors about sects’ active recruitment of Chinese citizens and defectors from the North specifically for such tasks: the goal is to create an impression that there is an armed opposition to the regime in North Korea, which should be supported based on the Libyan model. The project is very risky, especially due to the fact that the exposure would backfire on the country leading the provocation, regardless of whether it was a top-down decision or a stupid grassroots initiative. Perhaps, this is the reason why the intelligence agencies of the Republic of Korea became aware of such warnings.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D., Senior Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“