The odd tale of a lone Israeli spy and North Korea

Explosion kills Syrian technicians on North Korean train, Israeli agent spotted in Pyongyang
June 20th, 2013
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WASHINGTON D.C. – In the weeks after the mysterious Ryongchon train explosion that killed a dozen Syrian weapons scientists in North Korea on April 22, 2004, the Canadian Office of Foreign Affairs announced they were investigating reports that an Israeli Mossad spy travelling on a stolen Canadian passport was in North Korea around the time of the blast.

Zev William Barkan was last seen in late April in Pyongyang, North Korea, after travelling there from Beijing using a Canadian passport issued under the name Kevin William Hunter, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail and other media reports. “The Canadian passport of Kevin William Hunter was said to have been reported stolen in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou on April 11, 2004”—11 days before the massive blast, measuring 3.6 on the Richter scale, at Ryongchon.

“Israel Mossad agent in North Korea?” read the headline in the August 4 Jerusalem Post, adding “New Zealand passport scam takes Canadian twist.”

The Canadian Press reported “Federal officials are investigating whether a suspected Israeli spy is travelling in Asia on a stolen Canadian passport.”

It said “agencies are checking allegations that Zev William Barkan – embroiled in a New Zealand espionage caper – is using a Canadian passport issued under the name Kevin William Hunter.”

“That part of the story’s being checked,” said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Reynald Doiron. “All of that being put together, we should have a clearer picture.”

Foreign Affairs spokesman Reynald Doiron told Canadian CTV television that “We are checking the information. We know some of the answers but not all of them and we are determined to get to the bottom of this.”

TINKER, SAILOR, TOLD’YA HE’S A SPY

Barkan was at the time wanted by police in New Zealand in an espionage scandal that had erupted in the weeks before the North Korean train explosion.

The rare public spy scandal captured New Zealand headlines on April 17 when two Israeli Mossad agents were charged with attempting to illegally obtain New Zealand passports for the use of the Mossad operative Zev Barkan. When two other Mossad operatives were arrested, Barkan, who was in New Zealand between March 3 and 20th, vanished.

As part of the plot, Barkan attempted to assume the identity of a severely disabled New Zealand man with cerebral palsy. In an effort to secure the passport, Barkan obtained the man’s birth certificate and applied for a passport under his name, but his American accent raised the suspicions of a New Zealand official which sparked authorities to investigate.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff told New Zealand radio that Barkan was a former Israel Defence Force diver and diplomat assigned to Israeli embassies in Vienna and Brussels between 1993 and 2001.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark has said there was “no doubt whatsoever” that the men were spies.

Secret cable from the American embassy in New Zealand confirmed U.S. officials knew the arrested men were Mossad agents. “We have very strong grounds for believing these are Israeli intelligence agents,” the cable, released in 2009 by WikiLeaks, said. “While Prime Minister Helen Clark would not confirm which service employed the men, she noted that if one were to lay espionage charges then one would have to be prepared to offer the kind of evidence in court which our intelligence agencies do not like coming forward to display.”

One New Zealand news organization reported that “ Barkan is being investigated by Macau and Chinese Immigration for his movements in April/May. The investigation includes his alleged use of the U.S. passport in the name of Zev Barkan and a second Canadian passport in the name of Kevin Hunter – which was stolen in Guangzhou China on April 11th.”

FROM NZ TO PY

The court arraignments on April 16 revealed that two Israeli’s were arrested on charges of attempting to obtain a New Zealand passport and Zev William Barkan had “fled the country and authorities concede they would not know where to find him.”

But soon reports placed Barkan in Pyongyang, North Korea in late April, according to the Australian Sydney Morning Herald and others, travelling on a stolen Canadian passport.

And the unlikely saga only became more curious in the ensuing weeks and months.

New Zealand, Canadian, Israeli and Australian media reported that Mossad agent Zev William Barkan was reported seen in Pyongyang working “as a security adviser for the North Korean government” where he was negotiating a contract to build a security wall along the border with China with Israeli-manufactured motion detectors and night vision equipment.

Unconfirmed accounts citing an “Asian-based NGO closely linked to New Zealand intelligence networks” at a conference in Japan on issues of North Korean refugees, said “Israeli agents, including Barkan, had entered into North Korea under the guise of security consultants” in April.

New Zealand news site scoop.com quoted “a senior NGO chief executive with Global-Protect All Children” as saying “Barkan is there negotiating details of an extensive contract for design and technical equipment to support a security wall project, including- but by no means limited to – Israeli produced motion sensors and night vision equipment.”

“Barkan flew from Beijing to Pyongyang at the end of April. He was allegedly travelling on a Canadian passport issued in the name of Kevin Hunter, which had been reported stolen at the Canadian Consulate in the Southern Chinese city of Guangzhou in mid April.”

The account said Israeli experts were conducting a “feasibility study on a security fence along the 1500 KM North Korea China border.”
New Zealand believed Barkan “was trying to secure a ‘clean’ passport for use in a sensitive Israeli undercover operation in the region, less risky than a forged passport, ” according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

ISRAELI-CANADIANS

Canada was already sensitive to Israel’s spy services carrying out black espionage operations under the cover of fraudulent Canadian passports.

The Israeli government officials offered no comment on the case, but the Canadian investigation of Barkan followed another investigation Canada carried out only the previous week to determine why one of the two Israeli’s convicted in the passport scandal had used a Canadian passport, rather than an Israeli one, to enter New Zealand in 1999.

During his 2004 visit to New Zealand, he entered the country using his Israeli passport. Canadian authorities concluded that the arrested Mossad agent was a “legitimate citizen,” a dual Canadian-Israeli national, and that the Canadian passport he held was “genuine.”

But in 1997, seven years earlier, Israel-Canadian relations were rocked after two Mossad agents carrying Canadian passports were caught trying to kill Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Jordan. Mashal was injected in the ear with a poisonous toxin. Jordan immediately seized two Mossad agents posing as Canadian tourists and surrounded another six who had fled to the Israeli embassy.

Under the threat of execution and an embarrassing public spectacle after being caught red handed, an Israeli doctor was dispatched by airplane to Amman with an antidote for the poison which was administered to the murder target Khaled Mashal, who survived. The deal forced Israel to release from prison Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

After that diplomatic embarrassment, Israel promised Canada in 1997 that it would cease using Canadian passports.

After the Canadian Foreign Ministry announced they were investigating reports that Barkan was travelling on a Canadian passport in North Korea, New Zealand’s foreign minister, Phil Goff, said: “I have read with interest the Canadians are following up allegations he may have traveled at some point on a stolen Canadian passport. When he came to New Zealand my understanding was he was travelling on a U.S. passport. Clearly there would be co-operation between police forces in different countries to try to get to the bottom of these things.”

“The passports that Mossad agents tried to obtain illegally might have been reserved for an assassination operation in a third country, which would have caused irreparable damage to New Zealand,” Foreign Minister Phil Goff was quoted speculating to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.

In July 2004, a New Zealand media outlet reported a detailed, but unconfirmed account of how the fugitive Mossad agent, Barkan had fled New Zealand to North Korea. In an article headlined “NGOs Claim Wanted Israeli Agent Barkan In North Korea”, the report said “Zev Barkan the suspected Israeli Mossad agent on the run from New Zealand Police has been sighted in North Korea, according to an Asian-based NGO closely linked to New Zealand intelligence networks.”

The account went on to allege, “Zev William Barkan turned up in Pyongyang as an Israeli security adviser in April, within weeks of fleeing from New Zealand prior to a suspected Israeli spy ring being sprung for attempting to illegally acquire a New Zealand passport.”

The reports of the pilfered Canadian passport in Guangzhou, the Chinese city near the North Korean border, was only 11 days before the blast at the Ryongchon train station.

On April 22, 2004, a massive explosion tore through the train station in Ryongchon, North Korea, nine hours after North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il passed through returning from a trip to China. Wide speculation that the blast was a botched assassination attempt has lingered for years.

BOOMTOWN

A number of sources say that North Korean investigators had concluded the explosion was an attempt on the leaders life, but more logical evidence points to sabotage directed at the cargo of sophisticated missile components destined for Israel’s enemies in Syria.

The explosion destroyed 40 percent of the town and had the fingerprints of an Israeli intelligence operation. It was later discovered that a rigged cell phone triggered the blast, which also killed a dozen Syrian missile technicians working for the Syrian Center for Scientific Research.

Meanwhile, on May 24, 2004, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo reported that a North Korean official visiting China said the North Korean National Security Agency had “concluded that rebellious forces had plotted the explosions.” The paper quoted North Korean sources saying security agencies had determined “that cell phones had been used in triggering the explosion and reported to the North Korean leader that the use of cell phones should be banned for the sake of the leader’s safety.”

On May 19th, North Korea abruptly halted the entire nationwide mobile phone service and confiscated all the 10,000 cell phones in the country. Mobile phone service was not resumed for another five years.

Reports emerged in the following days that North Korean investigators had found a damaged cell phone wrapped in duct tape near the site of the blast.

In July, the two Israeli men were convicted in a New Zealand court of the Israeli intelligence passport acquiring scam and sentenced to six months imprisonment by the Auckland High Court and ordered to pay NZ $100,000 to a cerebral palsy charity.

New Zealand High Court Judge Justice Judith Potter said: “It’s difficult to see why anyone would want a false New Zealand passport unless it was intended to be used in a way ancillary to some other offending (law).” She said: “That offending is likely to be serious or perhaps very serious.”

The New Zealand judge may have been prescient.

In January 2010, Zev Barkan was again fingered by authorities, this time the government of Dubai, in a highly publicized scandal when Mossad operatives were caught on video carrying out the assassination of a senior Hamas leader.

One of the 32 men named for the Dubai murders was Zev Barkan, who was still wanted in New Zealand for the passport scandal six years earlier.

“Former Israeli diplomat to New Zealand Zev William Barkan leads a life akin to that of novelist Frederick Forsyth’s Jackal – emerging from the shadows only to be named by authorities in connection with various crimes before again disappearing,” wrote New Zealand’s Fairfax Media in July 2011.

Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was killed in a Dubai luxury hotel room in January 2010 by Mossad operatives using Australian, British, Irish, French and Dutch passports, many of them apparently surreptitiously copied from unsuspecting travelling tourists who now had warrants for their arrests for murder.

The killers were all caught on hotel video cameras, some dressed in wigs and sports attire carrying tennis rackets as they stalked the guerrilla leader from the lobby to the elevators to the hallway outside his room. Within an hour of the assassination, all 32 had departed Dubai airport for different cities in Europe.

Barkan, born in 1967 in Washington, D.C. and holds dual U.S. and Israeli citizenships, entered New Zealand on a American passport. He was cited by the Australian Sydney Morning Herald as trafficking in passports stolen from foreign tourists in Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar and was said to operate a security business in Thailand.

Barkan had an American accent, according to New Zealand officials, and told people he came from Washington, D.C., where his family was in the “windows and doors” business.

ZEV, ZE’EV, LEV

The Sydney Morning Herald also reported he was born in the U.S. and his given name was Zev Bruckenstein, where his father was director of religious studies at a synagogue in Washington, D.C.

Other aliases he has used include Zev William Barkan, Ze’ev William Barkan, and Lev Bruckenstein. He told aquantances in New Zealand that he was an American and his name was Jay. Dubai officials believe he was travelling on a fraudulent French passport using the name Eric Rassineux.

In 2005, the year after the New Zealand passport scandal and the train explosion in North Korea, Barkan was back in the news.
“‘He goes to Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Thailand and deals with gangs who rob tourists of their valuables and passports,” an aid worker told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2005. ‘Barkan is mostly interested in passports and there have been a number of Australian passports.”

After disappearing from New Zealand, unsubstantiated media reports from Cambodia accused Barkan of running a studio making snuff and porn movies in a town on the Mekong River North of the capital, Phnom Penh, where students and tourists from New Zealand and Australia were lured by promises of movie stardom.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that “The passports that Mossad agents tried to obtain illegally might have been reserved for an assassination operation in a third country, which would have caused irreparable damage to New Zealand.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said “The New Zealand government views the act carried out by the Israeli intelligence agents as not only utterly unacceptable but also a breach of New Zealand sovereignty and international law. The Israeli agents attempted to demean the integrity of the New Zealand passport system and could have created considerable difficulties for New Zealanders presenting their passports overseas in future.”

She added: “New Zealand condemns without reservation these actions by agencies of the Israel government. The Israel government was asked for an explanation and an apology three months ago. Neither has been received.”

When reporters for the New Zealand Herald tracked down Ze’ev Barkan’s family in October 2004, they were not well received. Ze’ev Barkan is married to a woman called Irit and they live the village of Shoham, 15 miles from Tel Aviv. The woman who answered a reporter’s telephone call identified herself as Irit, but said she did not know a Ze’ev.

His father, Yossef Barkan was more direct. “Stop calling here, you hear me. I’ve nothing to do with this business. Goodbye.”

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About the Author

Nate Thayer

Nate Thayer is an award winning investigative journalist with 25 years of experience in Asia, specializing in conflict, intelligence, security, transnational crime. He has a noted expertise on Cambodia and a current focus on North Korea.

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