February’s assassination of Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur International Airport once again attracted attention to North Korea’s spies and spying. Indeed, North Korea, for such a small state, has a large and active (perhaps even hyperactive) intelligence community.
The North Korean intelligence agents do not limit themselves to conventional spying. Over the decades, the North Koreans have conducted a number of abductions (a North Korean Ambassador was once thrown out of Moscow after an abduction operation), bombed airliners, assassinated people they saw as dangerous, and tried to destabilize South Korea through guerilla operations and attempted assassinations of prominent political leaders (at least three attempts on the lives of South Korean presidents are currently known about).
Aside from these more public acts, the North Korean intelligence community is, predictably, deeply engaged in what can be described as routine intelligence work: dispatching agents, eavesdropping on foreign communications, and gathering useful information about the internal affairs of all countries which matter to North Korean decision-makers.
The 20th century has made spying (or, as they’re known, ‘intelligence operations’) seem important and glamorous, especially in popular culture. However, few people realize that the world of espionage is always supported by large and expensive bureaucracies – and in this article, I will review how the North Korean intelligence community works.
While spies have existed since times immemorial, centralized intelligence bureaucracies are quite a novel idea: most states began to establish such agencies only in the late 19th century. Now ‘intelligence communities’ might be large and consists of numerous branches, especially in countries with grand strategic ambitions and/or grave security concerns. For example, the U.S. now has sixteen intelligence agencies: the CIA, DIA and NSA being the best known of them.
Most states cannot afford such labyrinthine structures, but few nations limit themselves to keeping just one intelligence service. Commonly, a modern state runs at least two independent agencies, with one usually subordinated to the military dealing with military intelligence with the other dealing with political intelligence – either independent or, less frequently, subordinate to a foreign ministry.
To a large extent, such a structure is necessary because military and political intelligence activities require very different sets of skills, but one suspects that frequently the major reason behind the dichotomy is that top decision makers like to hear more than one opinion on vital security issues.
Few nations limit themselves to keeping just one intelligence service
Until a decade ago, the North Korean intelligence bureaucracy generally followed this pattern, albeit with an important and unusual twist. Apart from the usual pair of separate military and general intelligence services, it also had an additional intelligence agency which was subordinate to the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), the country’s ruling – and, effectively, only – political party.
Under the old model which existed from the late 1940s until the major reorganization in 2009, general foreign intelligence was gathered and processed by the relevant departments of the Ministry of the State Security. Its formal Korean name has changed a number of times, but since 2016 it is known as Kukka Powi Seong. English translations vary, but in this article we will refer to it as the MSS.
Being an agency responsible for a large variety of tasks – foreign intelligence, domestic surveillance, counter-intelligence, encryption, among others – the MSS was very similar to the Soviet KGB, after which it was once modeled. As with the KGB, intelligence sections were sometimes a part of the Ministry of the Interior, a very large government agency, dealing not only with political surveillance but also with common crime, population registration, and other routine police tasks. Like the KGB, the MSS was made eventually independent, and since 1973 it has operated that way.
The second branch of the intelligence community under the pre-2009 structure was the Reconnaissance Bureau of the General Staff (often known as the RBG). It deals with military intelligence, and its main mission was to provide the Korean People’s Army (KPA) with intelligence. Since North Korean signal intelligence is notoriously weak, much attention is paid to the human intelligence and infiltration.
As I mentioned above, a peculiar feature of the pre-2009 structure was the existence of what can be described as the ‘Party’s own intelligence’. Within the KWP Central Committee’s vast bureaucracy there were departments engaged in clandestine operations which were independent from the MSS and RGB and quite powerful – sometimes more powerful than the MSS.
The origin of these peculiar institutions is related to the history of the KWP. In 1949, after the official merger of the South and North Korean Workers’ Parties, the KWP became an organization which was, theoretically, operating across the entire country.
In the North it operated as the Leninist (or rather Stalinist) ruling party, while in the South it ran a network of underground cells and guerilla groups engaged in armed struggle against the Syngman Rhee regime. The openly stated goal of the KWP was a Korea-wide revolution, and in order to achieve this goal the government of the North generously supported the South Korean underground left.
To run such operations, a special branch of the party’s central bureaucracy was necessary. It organized clandestine operations, gathered intelligence about the South, but, above all, worked towards fomenting and advancing the Juche/Communist revolution there. The KWP Central Committee department dealing with the Southern underground was initially called the ‘Liaison Department’, or Yeonlak Pu, the implication being that its main goal was to maintain liaisons with guerillas, agents, and activists in the South.
A peculiar feature of the pre-2009 structure was the existence of what can be described as the ‘Party’s own intelligence’
When the Liaison Department was created, the KWP did have a noticeable, if clandestine, presence in the South. However, the underground party cells were all destroyed in the early 1950s, and guerilla operations ceased soon after the end of the Korean War. As a result, from around 1954-55 the Liaison Department essentially had nobody to liaison with.
Nonetheless, it was not disbanded, due, partially, to the well-known resilience of bureaucratic institutions, which tend to outlive the goals they were once created to achieve. However, in the case of the divided Korea, there was another reason to maintain “party intelligence.” The dream of revolutionary unification was dying slowly, and some hopes about the prospects of a South Korean revolution might have been entertained in Pyongyang as late as the 1980s.
As a result, it looked desirable to have a party agency which would be able to eventually re-establish WPK cells in the South – or, alternatively, assist the pro-Pyongyang radical left there. Hence, the Liaison Department and its successors (there were many administrative reforms throughout those decades), often collectively known as the “Third Building” (Samho Cheongsa), survived and prospered.
As historians of bureaucracy would expect, the WPK intelligence bureaucracy did eventually branch well outside its original role. Within the WPK’s own intelligence community they established a full-scale, if rather small, branch which dealt not only with South Korea, but with the entire world. ‘Bureau 35’, as it was known, operated across the globe, in countries which were seen as important for North Korean policy.
SEPARATION OF POWERS
In theory, the respective responsibilities of North Korea’s three major intelligence agencies can be easily defined: the ‘party intelligence’ works to foment revolution and bring down the South Korean government, the RGB would gather intelligence on South Korea’s tanks, airfields and war plans, while the MSS would gather political intelligence about the South as well as from other countries which mattered to Pyongyang.
In real life, things were not so simple. The agencies frequently saw their responsibilities overlap: the power and inclinations of top bureaucrats mattered more than institutional arrangements.
For example, the best-known operations of North Korean intelligence in the late 1960s were the Blue House raid in January 1968 and the landing of North Korean agents, disguised as local guerrillas, on the eastern coast of the country later the same year. Logically, one would probably expect that both operations, clearly aimed at destabilizing the situation in South Korea and bringing about a South Korean revolution, should be conducted under the auspices of the KWP’s agencies. However, both operations – impressive and bold, but unsuccessful – were planned and executed by the military intelligence.
As historians of bureaucracy would expect, the KWP intelligence bureaucracy did eventually branch well outside its original role
In 2009 the old system was revamped completely, and a new system of intelligence, far more centralized, emerged as a result. Since then, intelligence operations have been directed by the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB, Jeongchal chongguk) which reports directly to the State Affairs Commission. The new RGB structure absorbed both military and party intelligence: the entire departments of the former intelligence services were transferred to the new agency.
Still, centralization is not complete: vestiges of the earlier system have survived. It seems that the MSS overseas intelligence service, admittedly the weakest and least influential of all original three, avoided the merger and has remained independent. One, however, wonders about its actual significance and power, especially since the MSS head, General Kim Won Hong, was reportedly purged from his position in early 2017.
These reports are plausible: being head of foreign intelligence and/or political police has always been a high-risk job in any Stalinist dictatorship. These people tended to die in the torture chambers and prisons cells they themselves once created, killed by a prudent supreme leader who does not want his top spies to be too powerful.
ENTER THE SIX DEPARTMENTS
The WPK to this day, however, maintains some sections dealing with subversion and clandestine operations. The WPK Central Committee’s United Front Department controls propaganda towards South Korea, as well as efforts to spy on (and influence) ethnic Korean communities worldwide. The Central Committee also maintains a much-downsized version of the Liaison Department, currently named Bureau 225. The Party still runs a smaller version of its own intelligence service – even though the emphasis is now, clearly, on the newly established RGB.
Centralization is not complete: vestiges of the earlier system have survived
The RGB consists of the departments, but, curiously, there is no Fourth department in its structure. The reason is simple: as many of our readers are aware, ‘four’ in Korean sounds exactly like ‘death’, and hence is often avoided. Clearly North Korean spies are superstitious, are not too eager to work for what is officially called the ‘death department’.
The RGB structure gives us a fairly good picture of what the North Korean decision-makers expect from their intelligence services:
- The First Department, formerly part of Party intelligence, deals with training agents and giving technical assistance for infiltrations, often by submarines or semi-submersible craft;
- The Second Department, formerly of military intelligence, is responsible for gathering military intelligence about hostile forces, above all, the South Korean army and USFK;
- The Third Department deals with signal intelligence, and is, predictably, involved in computer hacking;
- The Fifth Department is, essentially, the above-mentioned Bureau 35, once created within the party intelligence. Now it deals with overseas political intelligence, with special emphasis on South Korea (it is widely believed that the Fifth Department planned and executed the recent assassination of Kim Jong Nam in Kuala Lumpur);
- The Sixth Department deals with the military contacts and military policy (it is not quite clear how it differs from the Second Department);
- The Seventh Department deals with logistics and supply issues.
One can wonder to which extent the new, post-2009 centralized structure of the intelligence community is better than the triad which existed for decades. It seems that in this regard North Korea is not much different from other countries, where the pendulum also moves between centralization and decentralization and back.
At any rate, a more objective assessment of North Korea’s intelligence efforts will be possible only a few decades from now, if ever. Nonetheless, the assassination of Kim Jong Nam once again demonstrated that North Korean spies are capable of conducting bold operations far from their borders.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: Stadium and Juche tower at night by Pricey on 2007-04-15 13:36:54