When foreign journalists attended North Korea’s Day of the Sun parade on April 15, no one could have known that weeks later Pyongyang would be claiming U.S. and South Korean intelligence services had been hatching a plan to assassinate Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un the very same day.
A North Korean known simply as “Kim” had been paid to carry out an attack with biochemical substances “targeting the supreme leadership during events at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun and at military parade and public procession after his return home,” DPRK state media said unexpectedly on Friday.
The plan, however, was foiled by North Korean security services, DPRK media said, who alleged that Kim – who was once a logger working in Russia – had been given satellite communications equipment for the attack and $290,000 over the course of several meetings with foreign spy services.
Coming amid an increasingly difficult period for relations between Pyongyang and Washington, and just days ahead of elections in South Korea, the specificity of North Korea’s full claims on the issue are notable.
But was there really a joint U.S. – ROK plan to use substances “including radioactive substance and nano poisonous substance” to kill Kim Jong Un “six or twelve months” after a difficult-to-detect attack at the April 15 parade?
And what of the significance in releasing so much detail about an ambiguous style of attack, just months after North Korea was itself suspected of indirectly killing Kim Jong Nam, the estranged brother of the current Supreme Leader?
To find out, NK News spoke to a number of long-time DPRK watchers, the following of whom responded in time for our deadline:
- Andray Abrahamian – Honorary Fellow at Macquarie University
- Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein – associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and co-editor of North Korean Economy Watch
- Christopher Green – PhD candidate at the University of Leiden and former English-language editor of Daily NK
- John Hemmings – Director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society
- John Lee – Regular NK News columnist and blogger on Korean issues
1. What would be the most likely reason the DPRK would be publishing claims like these at such a time, days before an ROK election and on the heel of high tensions with the U.S?
Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein: It’s very hard to parse the logic of this, I think.
One reason could of course be to shift the moral high ground perceived by the global audience, and craft an image where the North is not the perpetrator of unrest and tensions, but a victim of an international plot, supporting its claims to need a strong deterrent weapon.
Christopher Green: The North Korean government may well have a foreign policy goal in mind, but I’m not keen to second-guess what that is. Rather, I would point to the fact that there is a campaign underway inside North Korea to reinforce and modernize the public surveillance system. The government has been reminding the public through regular meetings that they must be vigilant about reporting odd, unusual or suspicious behavior to the security services, and has been actively promoting the fact that there are dedicated phone numbers for precisely this purpose. We may soon hear news of round-the-clock security being ordered at all public commemorative sites and revolutionary history study locations.
At the end of the day, a police state like North Korea needs to present the public with an exemplary rationale for why intense domestic surveillance is necessary on an ongoing basis. That is the role of the external enemy in public discourse. What we are seeing is the external manifestation of a comprehensive process of reinforcing social control.
Which is not to say that the North Korean government faces no external threats. There are plenty of states and private actors who wish the regime ill, at least some of whom are presumably willing to act on those feelings. But the process of reinforcing social control would go on irrespective of the scale of the threat at any given moment, because social control is key to regime survival.
Andray Abrahamian: It’s hard to say.
Maybe this is just when they got the information. If it had been in March we’d ask “why release this during the impeachment”.
If June we’d say “why release this just as Moon is getting his national security and other staff organized”.
Maybe it is to warn North Koreans living abroad to be careful.
John Hemmings: While it’s impossible to assess the veracity of North Korea’s claims regarding this man, Kim, it might well be that they have caught someone engaged in espionage and have decided to amplify his mission in a desperate attempt to shift their rock-bottom position in world public opinion.
John Lee: There are probably different goals that are being pursued simultaneously. Despite claims of Kim Jong Un’s eroding level of respect among his subjects, at least for now, he is still the Supreme Leader of North Korea. Considering the history that is associated with that title, any attack on Kim Jong Un is likely considered an assault on North Korea itself. It would be one of the more effective ways of rallying people around him.
Also possible is that the North Koreans are attempting to create enough noise to cause South Korean citizens to turn their attention toward the NIS. In the last South Korean presidential election, NIS agents were caught flooding social media message boards with pro-Park Geun-hye rhetoric in an attempt to steer the election toward her favor.
Though there is so far no evidence to suggest that the NIS is attempting to do something similar this time around, the North Koreans may be making a “pre-emptive strike” against the NIS in case they do. In other words, they may be trying to get the NIS to go on the defensive to make them too busy to attempt to steer the election toward the conservative candidates’ favor.
2. What, if anything, strikes you as notable about this particular story and the surrounding context? Why?
Andray Abrahamian: It’s interesting that they allege a location of where the DPRK citizen was turned and give quite a bit of detail compared to, say, five years ago, when they “uncovered a plot to destroy DPRK statues”.
It’s hard to know what’s true and what isn’t, but the detail suggests that they want all stakeholders to know they have an active and capable surveillance operation in Russia and China.
John Hemmings: The story uses the term terrorism repeatedly, perhaps in a misguided attempt to curry favor with international audiences and attempt to claim a moral high ground.
Ironically, their claims of a bioweapon being used, only remind us immediately of their use of VX in a crowded international airport in February.
Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein: Several things strike me as notable.
For one, it is unusually detailed, unlike some past claims of foreign intelligence operations have been.
It’s also hard to believe that even if there was a plot in the making, which isn’t impossible to imagine in theory, the North’s security services would be able to pin down precisely what foreign institutions would be behind it (such as the CIA and South Korean intelligence in this case).
Also, it should be remembered that in a system such as the North Korean one, it isn’t unheard of that relatively small or even non-existent threats are depicted or perhaps even imagined into much larger webs of allegations for political reasons, as has often been the case in purges of supposed political enemies of the leaders through the decades.
Finally, the statement reads in a very conspirational tone, seeming to imply that terrorism perpetrated by ISIS could be a phenomenon made up by the US.
Christopher Green: I find it intriguing that one of the protagonists in the latest story is a laborer who worked abroad in Russia.
You may recall the 2012 “Statue Demolition Society” case in which the analogous figure was a defector, Jon Yong Chol. Defectors are another category of ideologically tainted individual.
At the very least, the framing of the new case shows us that the regime is all too well aware that its economic policy of exporting labor to bring in hard currency is not without its risks.
John Lee: The most ironic and also troubling nature of this story is their continued insistence on the CIA’s and NIS’ decision to use bio-chemical weapons to assassinate Kim Jong Un.
Ironic, naturally, because it was the exact same method that was used to assassinate Kim Jong Un’s half brother, Kim Jong Nam, earlier in February.
Assuming that this badly written spy novella holds any truth to it, it would be a clear example of the pot calling the kettle black. The entertainment value of the story aside, this is troubling because the intended message of this story may be the South Korean public but also the North Korean public.
While it is hard to imagine that a significant number of South Koreans would believe the story, much of the North Korean people remain in the dark about Kim Jong Nam’s death. This story will help to galvanize the North Korean people in their shared sense of victimhood. It simply goes to show that it doesn’t matter who the South Korean or American presidents are. Kim Jong Un will continue his aggressive and provocative policies of strengthening his hold on power.
3.Given the current situation, how do you imagine Pyongyang will now act in the short to medium-term to the US and ROK?
John Lee: It is plausible that Kim Jong Un and his lackeys are popping champagne bottles.
It is clear that U.S. President Donald Trump is clueless about North Korea. The North Koreans recently accused him of having an “elementary school” understanding of North Korea and this is one of those rare moments when people would find it very difficult to disagree with North Korea.
And barring unforeseen circumstances, the next South Korean president is most likely going to be Moon Jae-in, who will more than likely soften South Korea’s approach to North Korea. Their actions of provocations, which they appear to have carefully timed, seem to be working as Seoul and Washington appear to be on an inevitable collision course. There is no reason for them to alter a winning strategy.
John Hemmings: This story might well be to drum up international support for North Korea, or it might well be to bring the national mood to a heightened level of paranoia in preparation for hostilities.
Either way, it is slightly odd that the BBC chose to reprint the (North Korean) story in its entirety, surely something they would refrain from doing if it were a Western or sympathetic government.
Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein: I wouldn’t be surprised if more details are rolled out to add to the story over the coming days or weeks, but it’s hard to guess.
Perhaps foreigners visiting or living in North Korea will be placed under a stricter security regimen.
I don’t think this will lead to direct, concrete revenge action against the U.S. or the ROK, but it is of course impossible to know.
Christopher Green: These kinds of campaign are subject to the law of diminishing returns; the general public, skeptical of official pronouncements in a way that was not the case a decade or two ago, needs respite from entreaties to constant vigilance. But that may have to wait for harvest time.
As spring turns to summer, hostility to the US and ROK is likely to continue.
Andray Abrahamian: This may signal to the U.S. and DPRK an intensification of covert operations and it may be a warning that Pyongyang can “do more” in this area.
In that sense, it would reflect some of the Trump administrations signals that it can “do more” on sanctions.
It’s hard to know if this is a major marker, though. We’re already in a period of confrontation between the primary antagonists in this relationship.
Main picture: Rodong Sinmun
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