North Korea’s leadership recently appointed Kim Son Il as the new deputy director of the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), which appears to have undergone a massive reshuffle in recent weeks, Daily NK has learned. 

Kim, who is in his early 50s, previously served as the director of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s External Investigations and Intelligence Department (otherwise known as Office 35). Given the fact that North Korea is actively using cyber attacks to steal foreign currency, his appointment may be aimed at strengthening the country’s cyber capabilities on multiple fronts. 

According to a Daily NK military source on Friday, Kim was given the military rank of lieutenant general upon his appointment to deputy director in the agency. 

The RGB is responsible for overseeing espionage operations in South Korea and other countries. It was formed in 2009 as part of a consolidation of various intelligence and special operations agencies, including the RGB under the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, the Workers’ Party’s Operations Bureau and Office 35. At the time, Kim Son Il reportedly remained in the Central Committee instead of moving over to the newly-formed RGB.

According to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Kim’s appointment is aimed at strengthening the Workers’ Party’s chain of command over the RGB. His report suggests that North Korea wants to continue setting up cyberwarfare-related “bases” in China and other countries while ensuring that the agency’s efforts to expand its cyberwarfare capabilities come under the “direct guidance” of the party. 

Kim’s appointment as deputy director may also be related to the fact that the RGB is using a myriad of cyber attacks to steal intelligence and foreign currency. In short, the Workers’ Party may be fine-tuning its control over the regime’s cyberwarfare unit so that it can acquire more funds for the regime while sidestepping sanctions, which appear to be in place for the long term. 

Several aspects of Kim’s resume seem to support this analysis. “Kim is in his early 50s, he has experience in clandestine operations overseas, and he is viewed as highly competent,” the source told Daily NK. 

MASSIVE RESHUFFLING

The source also reported there has been a massive turnover of personnel at the RGB from late August until Sept. 15. “Over the course of two weeks, about half of the heads of major departments [in the RGB] have been replaced,” the source said, adding, “All of the incoming officials are young people in their early to mid-30s.”

This turnover suggests that the regime is seeking to modernize its cyber capabilities by putting more young information technology (IT) experts to work. North Korea has been producing IT experts for the past 25 years by selecting talented students from elementary schools and training them at various elite schools, including Kim Il Sung University, Kim Chaek University of Technology, and Mirim University (Command Automation University). 

Officials pushed out of RGB departments related to foreign affairs in the latest reshuffle have either “voluntarily resigned” or been demoted to unimportant posts in departments in charge of logistics or equipment, the source said. 

In 2016, Chang Gil Song took over the reins of the RBG when incumbent director Kim Yong Chol was transferred to head the Workers’ Party’s United Front Department. Chang was later dismissed in December 2019. Rim Gwang Il was appointed RGB director earlier this year.

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Jeong Tae Joo is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. He focuses on North Korean military matters. Please direct any questions about his articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.