North Korea announced on Friday that it launched “the special investigation committee” to look into the fate of Japanese abductees and other missing people in the North decades ago.
Masked in mystery, one man became the immediate focus of the Japanese intelligence community. That is So Tae Ha, chairman of the special investigation committee. Experts are now trying to figure out his true identity.
So’s official titles, announced by Pyongyang, are counselor for security at the National Defense Commission (NDC) and vice-minister of the Ministry of State Security (MSS).
The NDC is North Korea’s highest authority and supreme decision-making body. Currently, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is first chairman of the NDC.
The MSS, on the other hand, is a secret police force, or Pyongyang’s equivalent of the KGB. Kim is believed to have the MSS under his direct rule, just as his father Kim Jong Il did by concurrently serving as the head of the MSS for a long time. The MSS is believed to know the whereabouts of all of Japanese abductees as well as the Japanese wives who went to North Korea with their Korean husbands decades ago.
‘The committee’s members are very substantial members of the country’s national security community, despite having what would seem to outside observers very mid-level jobs’
In 2004 when Pyongyang conducted a reinvestigation into Japanese abductees such as Megumi Yokota, who was kidnapped by North Korean agents in 1977 at the age of 13, the investigation committee was led by the Ministry of People’s Security (MPS), a police organ, but not by the NDC or the MSS. For this reason, North Korea has claimed there were limits on its ability to conduct a thorough investigation into the abductions, which had involved North Korea’s special agencies.
Lee Young-hwa, economics professor at Kansai University in Osaka, told NK News on Monday that several organizations in the Workers’ Party of Korea, such as the Operations Department in charge of espionage operations against South Korea, had actually carried out the kidnappings of Japanese.
This time, Pyongyang said the special investigations committee was invested with a “special mandate” by the NDC to “investigate all institutions and mobilize relevant institutions and persons concerned for the investigation any time necessary.”
Pyongyang also said the committee will be staffed with about 30 officials from relevant institutions including the MSS, the MPS, the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces and so on, supported by MSS Councilor Kim Myong Chol and MPS Department Director Pak Yong Sik.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said last Thursday that the involvement of North Korea’s national decision-making bodies like the NDC and the MSS in an investigation into Japanese abductees was a decisive factor in his decision to lift some sanctions on Pyongyang.
“The committee’s members are very substantial members of the country’s national security community, despite having what would seem to outside observers very mid-level jobs,” said Michael Madden, who operates North Korea Leadership Watch. “Based on some conversations I’ve had with someone tied to the committee’s establishment they will have a lot of power but there is not a very clear idea whether what they turn up will satisfy the Prime Minister Abe.”
Madden said So is a lieutenant general from the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and that he was one of the officials who replaced Ryu Kyong, who had been dismissed as vice minister of the MSS and executed in 2011. Ryu had been well-known as “Mr. X” in Japan, acting as negotiator with then-chief of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau Hitoshi Tanaka at the 2002 Japan-North Korea summit, where then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Kim Jong Il first met in Pyongyang.
A MANUFACTURED TITLE?
Although all vice ministers and vice directors have a specific portfolio such as organization, liaison or inspections, So’s current portfolio is still unclear.
Madden even said that So may not formally be a vice minister, and that it may be just a job title used externally in the media or during diplomatic exchanges, not reflecting his real position. Like other State Security personnel he has a KPA military rank, but he doesn’t sit in the chain of command of the KPA General Staff or Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces, Madden said.
At a press conference last Thursday, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also said that So’s title as counselor for security at the NDC was “created out of necessity in order to name him as chairman of the Special Investigative Committee.” He said “(So) will be in charge of the country’s security issues at a vice minister level.”
Madden also pointed out that So is one of approximately eight NDC councilors, which is a powerful position usually held concurrent with another job. He is most likely part of a group of senior officials who are members of what are sometimes called sangmujo, which First Secretary Kim Jong Un inherited from his father Secretary General Kim Jong Il.
AN AUSPICIOUS START
‘(So) had penetrating eyes. He had power in his eyes’
Kenji Fujimoto: Kosuke Takahashi
Among Japanese citizens, there is one man who has actually met So Tae Ha. It is Kenji Fujimoto, who worked as Kim Jong Il’s personal sushi chef and was Kim Jong Un’s childhood friend. On Sunday Fujimoto told NK News he met So in 1995 at Mokrangwan, a guest house in the center of Pyongyang.
Two hours into the party, attended by several dozen party executives, Kim Jong Il ordered the head of the secretarial office to bring in other senior party members immediately.
“It was past nine o’clock,” he said. “There or four people came to the party. Among them was So Tae Ha.”
Fujimoto said his translator had identified So for him.
“The translator said, ‘He is from the secret police and he is quite a go-getter or hotshot. He will succeed in the future for sure,’” Fujimoto said.
“He was around 50 at that time. He had penetrating eyes. He had power in his eyes.”
Fujimoto spent 1989 to 2001 as Kim Jong Il’s sushi chef, and was abruptly invited back to the North in 2012, not long after his former boss’ death and Kim Jong Un’s ascension to supreme leader of North Korea. Fujimoto believes So is “definitely” Kim Jong Un’s closest confidant now.
“I now suspect So advised him to issue the NDC’s invitation letter for me in 2012, when I first hesitated to go to Pyongyang despite Mr. Kim Jong Un’s invitation,” he said.
Main Picture: Former DPRK leader, the late Kim Jong Il, takes part in a tour in May 2009 with Jang Song Taek, Kim Ki Nam, Ri Jae Il, MSS Senior (1st) Vice Minister Gen. U Tong Chuk and former MSS Vice Minister Ryu Kyong. KCNA
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