The suspects associated with Kim Jong Nam’s assassination are presumed to be affiliated with the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Air Koryo, the North’s state-run airline company, and Singwang Economics and Trading General Corporation, according to a report by the National Intelligence Service published on February 27. However, details of the incident show a number of deviations from the typical methods used in North Korea’s intelligence operations.
The operation appears to have been led by departments that do not specialize in external intelligence, and agents from the Ministry of State Security (MSS) participated despite the fact that the former head, Kim Won Hong, and others were recently purged. Furthermore, an unusual number of different departments seem to have been involved in an operation that would conceivably have been highly confidential in North Korea. It is surprising that Kim Jong Nam’s assassination, a project of utmost importance and sensitivity, was conducted using an untested approach.
Daily NK spoke with three defectors with extensive experience in and knowledge of these organizations while they lived in North Korea. They have agreed to offer their insights into the assassination on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
◆ Why was the MSS chosen to lead the operation instead of the highly experienced General Bureau of Reconnaissance (GBR)?
It was previously believed that the GBR organized Kim Jong Nam’s murder because it has historically been in charge of external intelligence operations including surveillance, espionage, sabotage, kidnappings, and assassinations. Most of the North Korean agents overseas, including locally-stationed spies and so-called “piston-agents,” are sent to perform a mission and then return to North Korea. Both cohorts operate under the auspices of the GBR.
In contrast, the MSS’s priority is to secure domestic affairs. The MSS agents across the nation are primarily responsible for identifying anti-regime forces. They are also in charge of escorting high-ranking officials and maintaining the political prison camps. If the GBR’s primary mission is espionage, the MSS’ would be counter-espionage.
Although the MSS also dispatches agents overseas, they would be more classified as informants responsible for information gathering and ferreting out espionage activities and leaks. For example, the MSS agents who accompany dispatched workers abroad are disguised as assistant managers and are there to thwart defection attempts. They also outsource missions to residents visiting their relatives in China or Hwagyo (ethnic Chinese community) shuttling back and forth over the border.
It is unusual that the MSS led the operation instead of the GBR, which has specialized in assassination and terror for decades. In particular, the operation ran an evidently high risk of bringing attention to North Korea’s brutality and revealing Kim Jong Nam’s presence to North Korea’s citizens. So it’s a bit of a mystery why Kim Jong Un gave the mission to the MSS.
It is also unusual for agents of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to join the operation. The MFA used to keep its distance from operations that could draw attention and invite scrutiny because it is in charge of promoting North Korea’s interests abroad.
“The MFA agents always behave with prudence to protect the national image, typically only offering tangential support if and when tethered to an operation,” said a defector who previously held a high-ranking government position in North Korea.
According to the National Intelligence Service (NIS) report, the MFA agents Ri Ji Hyon (aged 33) and Hong Sung Hac (aged 34) directly assisted in recruiting the female suspects from Vietnam and Indonesia, respectively, in partnership with the MSS agents.
◆ How did the MSS plan the assassination without Kim Won Hong?
Kim Jong Nam’s assassination was also conducted after the Minister of State Security Kim Won Hong was dismissed and several high-ranking MSS officials were executed. This implies that the MSS led the operation while its bureaucratic structure was impaired.
Some postulate that the operation arose from a standing order issued by Kim Jong Un five years ago. However, others argue that considering the MSS’s hierarchical structure, it would be impossible for the security organization to permit low-ranking officials to follow through on an order to assassinate a figure who is a member of the Kim family.
“When the head is absent, it is possible for subordinate secretaries to perform certain duties, but this does not apply to military operations and practical proceedings. They can only act to maintain morale amongst the agents while the Minister is not present,” said a former Ministry of State Security official.
“In North Korea, any system of proxy administration is generally unacceptable. For those who normally carry out orders to suddenly start giving them to others is unimaginable,” he added.
Kim Jong Un is known to have been receiving direct reports from Kim Won Hong. This raises questions about who had led the assassination operation after Kim Won Hong was purged. In regards to this, some say that it is difficult to believe that the GBR was at the head of the operation with the support of MSS personnel, because in North Korea, separate departments do not have the authority to govern over personnel from other departments.
“The GBR would have preferred to use highly-trained GBR agents than to direct the MSS agents. If, however, Kim Jong Un did confer operational command authority to the MSS, in this context it demonstrates his anxiety related to Kim Jong Nam,” said a defector who was previously affiliated with the GBR.
◆ Using multiple organizations is a disadvantage for secret missions
It is also unusual that as many as four organizations, the MSS, MFA, Air Koryo, and a private trading company under the direct control of the state, were involved in an overseas operation by North Korea. Normally, North Korea’s intelligence operations are hidden even from agents within the same organization.
For example, the external intelligence division of the GBR selects specific operations teams to be responsible for each separate mission within a larger operation. In this way, operations remain confidential, and are easier to clean up.
In contrast, if eight agents from separate organizations are selected, it would only be a matter of time before the news of Kim Jong Nam’s murder was leaked. The agents cannot help but mention the operation to their own organizations’ staff. Therefore, Kim Jong Nam’s presence (which the regime had been trying to conceal) would be exposed to the public in the process.
“I was always wary of the possibility that my team’s mission could be exposed even within the GBR. Considering that agents from several organizations were involved in Kim Jong Nam’s murder, it would be almost impossible to keep the news from spreading. Kim Jong Un achieved his first goal to murder Kim Jong Nam in order to secure his position, and may have been willing to break principles of intelligence operations, but it will come back to him and threaten the security of the regime,” the former GBR official stated.