Unpacking Claims of Secret North Korean Intelligence Operations

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Unpacking Claims of Secret North Korean Intelligence Operations

North Korean intelligence capabilities, tactics, and targets have evolved over the decades.

Unpacking Claims of Secret North Korean Intelligence Operations
Credit: John Pavelka / Flickr

Believed to be the highest-ranking North Korean military official to ever defect to South Korea, Kim Kuk-song recently confirmed claims of Pyongyang’s involvement in several clandestine operations against Seoul from the early 1990s to 2010. One of the most shocking claims involves a North Korean agent who allegedly infiltrated and worked at the Presidential Office of South Korea in the 1990s for roughly six years before returning to North Korea. While it’s difficult to verify all his claims spanning 30 years, Kim’s testimony illustrates the evolution of North Korea’s intelligence capabilities and targets.

Under a protective alias, Kim spoke with the BBC about his 30 years of working within the North’s intelligence collection agencies, which confirmed previous claims from South Korean media that a North Korean senior colonel “in charge of conducting intelligence operations” defected to South Korea in 2015. Kim claimed that Kim Jong Un ordered the creation of a “terror task force” to assassinate enemies of the Workers’ Party, including defectors resettled in South Korea. Pyongyang has refuted such claims. He also confirmed accusations of North Korea’s involvement in the global drug trade and several controversial attacks on South Korean territory, such as the 2010 sinking of the ROK Cheonan, which killed 46 South Korean sailors, and the 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, which injured 16 South Korean marines and three civilians. For decades, North Korea has vehemently denied responsibility for both attacks.

While the world mostly remembers former Soviet and Chinese spies, North Korea has also dispatched its own team of covert agents abroad to infiltrate foreign governments. Perhaps the most famous case was the 1968 assassination attempt on then-South Korean President Park Chung-hee by a team of disguised North Korean agents. Although a thwarted attempt, this operation claimed roughly 100 lives and South Korean authorities apprehended the spies only 350 meters away from their target. 

North Korea has also sought less conspicuous methods for infiltration. During the late 1970s to mid-1980s, Pyongyang pursued a global abduction scheme targeting South Korean, Japanese, and other foreign nationals to provide linguistic and cultural training to North Korean spies preparing for overseas operations. This program was highly successful as it provided trusted and trained agents with valuable knowledge from the outside world to support their mission objectives. Japan, in particular, was a successful target for North Korean infiltration and espionage as Pyongyang leveraged existing communist ideology and anti-Japanese sentiment among ethnic Koreans living in Japan to help formulate pro-North Korea organizations. These groups acted as de facto embassies and later hubs for money laundering schemes and intelligence operations. Spy missions remained a key role in Pyongyang’s attempt to covertly engage with the outside world and potentially influence foreign politics.

North Korea has actively tried to infiltrate and influence many levels of the South Korean government. Reportedly ranked 22nd in the country’s political hierarchy, Lee Sun-sil was a North Korean agent who established and operated a secret branch of the North’s ruling Worker’s Party inside South Korea for 10 years in an attempt to strengthen domestic support of communist ideology during the 1980s to 1990s. Pyongyang also dispatched honeytrap spies to seduce South Korean military officials into divulging classified information and acting on behalf of North Korea’s political interests.

In 2001, Won Jeong-hwa posed as a North Korean defector to enter South Korea with the goal of extracting sensitive information from military officers and assassinating key figures with toxic chemicals. She maintained romantic relationships with more than three officers, including an army first lieutenant with whom she shared an apartment and regularly received classified military information briefings. Although unable to complete all objectives as she reportedly failed to assassinate a key target, Won operated without detection for about seven years. The key target was later identified as Hwang Jang-yop, the architect of the North Korean Party’s political ideology known as Juche, or self-reliance, who defected to South Korea in 1997. Until his death in late 2010, he remained a major assassination target of the Kim regime.

According to information from the South Korean Ministry of Justice, Seoul apprehended 49 North Korean spies operating inside South Korea from 2003 to 2013. Despite political “breakthroughs” with Pyongyang during the early 2000s, such as the 2007 inter-Korean summit, North Korea chose not to recall its foreign agents and cease intelligence collection operations against South Korea. This raises concerns for all past and future inter-Korean and North Korean-U.S. summits as the current leader of North Korea has yet to demonstrate any major policy divergence from his father or grandfather.

While firm collaborative evidence proving a North Korean spy operated within the Blue House during the 1990s has yet to surface, defector testimony from high-level North Korean officials offers a broader picture of the reclusive country’s intelligence capabilities. In recent years, the U.S. government has reported an increase in broad North Korea-led cyber espionage efforts targeting global industries such as finance, banking, aerospace, defense, health care, and even COVID-19 vaccine testing labs. Compared to the 1990s and early 2000s, present-day sanctions and travel bans on North Korean persons likely restrict Pyongyang’s ability to plant covert agents abroad in a traditional sense, but cyberspace remains a viable domain for infiltration and information collection for highly trained North Korean agents.