It took Kim Kuk-song 30 years to rise to the top of North Korea’s powerful spy agency.
Kim Kuk-song has not lost his old habit of keeping secrets.
It took weeks of discussion before we got the chance to interview him, but he still worries about who might be listening. He wore sunglasses in front of the camera, and only two of our team knew his real name.
It took Mr. Kim 30 years to rise to the top of North Korea’s powerful spy agency. The intelligence agency, he says, is “the eyes, ears and brain of the Supreme Leader.
He claims to have kept secrets, sent assassins to kill their critics, and even set up an illegal drug lab to help fund the “revolution.
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North Korea’s Former Senior Military Officer Reveals He Was Instructed by Kim Jong-un to Plan Assassinations After Breaking Away
Now, the former major has decided to tell his story to the BBC. This is the first time a senior North Korean military officer has been interviewed by a major broadcaster.
In the exclusive interview, he said he was “the reddest of the reds. A loyal servant of communism.
But rank and loyalty don’t guarantee your safety in North Korea.
In 2014, he had to flee and has been living in Seoul since then, working for South Korean intelligence.
He describes the North Korean leadership as desperate to make money by any means possible, from the drug trade to arms sales in the Middle East and Africa. He tells us about the strategy behind the decisions made by Pyongyang, the North Korean regime’s attacks on South Korea, and he claims the mysterious country has spies and networks that can cover the world.
The BBC could not independently confirm his claims, but we managed to confirm his identity and, where possible, find evidence to corroborate his claims.
We contacted the North Korean embassy in the UK and the mission in New York for a statement, but so far have received no response.
“Special Terrorist Action Group”
From Kim Guk-song’s last years in North Korea’s top intelligence service, we can learn about the early years of current leader Kim Jong-un. He portrays a young man eager to prove himself as a “warrior.
In 2009, a new North Korean spy agency called the Reconnaissance General Bureau was established while Kim Jong Un was being trained to succeed his father, who had suffered a stroke. The director of the bureau is Kim Yong-chol, who remains one of the North Korean leader’s most trusted aides.
In May 2009, the major said, the chain of command gave orders to form a “terror task force” to kill a former North Korean official who had defected to South Korea.
“For Kim Jong Un, it was to satisfy the supreme leader (his father),” Kim said.
“The ‘Terror Task Force’ was set up to secretly assassinate (Hwang Jang-yop), the former secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea who defected to South Korea. I personally directed and executed this work.”
Image source, REUTERS
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Former North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Il and his son Kim Jong Un (right).
Hwang Jang-yeol was once one of the most powerful officials in North Korea. He was a key architect of North Korean policy. He defected to South Korea in 1997 and has never been forgiven. While in Seoul, he denounced the North Korean regime and the Kim family wanted revenge.
But the assassination attempt failed. Two North Korean Army majors were sentenced to 10 years in prison as a result and are still serving their sentences in Seoul. North Korea has always denied any involvement and claimed the incident was orchestrated by South Korea.
Kim Kook-song’s testimony, however, suggests otherwise.
“In North Korea, terrorism is a political tool to protect the nobility of Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un,” he said. “It was a gift to show the successor’s loyalty to his great leader.”
There were more incidents. A year later, in 2010, the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan sank after being torpedoed, killing 46 people. North Korea has always denied any involvement in the incident.
In November of the same year, dozens of North Korean artillery shells struck Yeongpyeong Island in South Korea. Two soldiers and two civilians were killed.
There has been much debate about who ordered the attack. Kim said he was “not directly involved in the Cheonan or Yeongpyeong operations,” but that they were “no secret to the officers of the General Reconnaissance Office, and they were proud and something to boast about.
He said the operations would not have been conducted without orders from the top brass.
“In North Korea, even building roads is not possible without direct approval from the top leader. The sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island were not things that could be done by subordinates.”
“This kind of military work was designed and carried out under special orders from Kim Jong-un. It was an achievement.”
“Cheong Wa Dae spy”
Kim Kook-song said one of his duties in North Korea was to develop a strategy to deal with South Korea. The goal was to establish a “political subordination” relationship.
That included having eyes and ears on the ground.
“I have instructed spies to go to South Korea many times and carry out missions through them. There were many cases.” He said.
He didn’t elaborate, but he gave us an interesting example.
“In one case, a North Korean agent returned safely to North Korea after being sent to work for Cheong Wa Dae. That was in the early 1990s. He returned home safely after working at Cheong Wa Dae for five or six years and worked at the Labor Party 314 Liaison Office.”
“I can tell you that North Korean agents play an active role in various civil society organizations and important institutions in South Korea.”
The BBC was unable to confirm the claim.
Image source, REUTERS
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Kim Jong Un recently declared that North Korea is once again facing a “crisis” and in April called on the population to prepare for another “long and hard march” – a term used to describe the disastrous famine that occurred under Kim Jong Il in the 1990s.
I have met several convicted North Korean spies in South Korea, and as Chad O’Carroll, founder of the news site NK News, noted in a recent article, South Korean prisons once held dozens of North Korean spies who had been arrested for various espionage activities for decades.
A handful of incidents continue to occur, at least one of which involved a spy sent directly from North Korea. But South Korea has arrested far fewer people for spy-related crimes since 2017, as North Korea turns to new technologies rather than traditional spies to gather intelligence, according to NK News.
North Korea may be one of the world’s poorest and most isolated countries, but previously widely publicized defector warned that Pyongyang has assembled an army of 6,000 sophisticated hackers.
Former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il ordered the training of new personnel in the 1980s to “prepare for cyber warfare,” according to Kim Guk-song.
He said, “Mudanbong University (MU) selected the brightest students from all over the country and put them through six years of special education.”
British security officials believe a North Korean group called the Lazarus Group launched a cyber attack in 2017 that crippled parts of the U.K.’s National Health Service and other organizations around the world. The group is believed to have carried out a high-profile hack of Sony Pictures in 2014.
The office is known as the 414 Liaison Office, said Kim Guosong.
Internally, we call it “Kim Jong Il’s intelligence center.
He claims the company had direct-dial calls to the North Korean leader.
“People say these agents are in China, Russia and Southeast Asian countries, but they also operate in North Korea. The office also protects communications between North Korean spies.”
Drugs for dollars
Kim Jong Un recently declared that North Korea is once again facing a “crisis” and in April called on the population to prepare for another “long and hard march” – a term used to describe the disastrous famine that occurred in the 1990s under Kim Jong Il. The term was used to describe the disastrous famine that occurred under Kim Jong Il in the 1990s.
At the time, Kim was in the war department and was ordered to raise “revolutionary funds” for the supreme leader. That meant the illegal drug trade, he said.
“In North Korea under Kim Jong-il, drug production peaked during the ‘Hard Long March,'” he said, “and at that time, the war department ran out of revolutionary funds for the Supreme Leader.”
“After receiving the assignment, I brought three foreigners to North Korea and set up a production base at the training center of the Labor Party’s 715 Liaison Office, which produced drugs.”
“It was methamphetamine. Then we could exchange it for dollars and send it to Kim Jong Il.”
His description of the drug trade is credible. North Korea has a long history of drug production, primarily heroin and opium. Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat in Britain who also defected, said at the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2019 that North Korea engaged in state-sponsored drug trafficking and tried to address widespread drug use in the country.
I asked Mr. Kim where the drug money went. Did it get exchanged for cash for the people?
“To help you understand, all the money in North Korea belongs to the North Korean leader,” he said, “and with that money, he can build villas, buy cars, buy food, buy clothes and enjoy luxuries.”
Estimates of the death toll from chronic food shortages in North Korea in the 1990s range from hundreds of thousands to one million.
Image credit, GETTY IMAGES
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A North Korean woman gathers grass to eat in a field in North Hamgyong Province in May 2010.
Another source of revenue, according to Kim Guk-song, is illegal arms sales to Iran, which are managed by the War Department.
“There are special mini-submarines, semi-submarines. North Korea is very good at making such sophisticated equipment.” He said.
That may be a bit of North Korean propaganda, since the country’s submarines use noisy diesel engines.
But Kim Guksong says the deals have been so successful that North Korea’s deputy chief in Iran will brag about summoning Iranians to his pool to do business.
Professor Andrei Lankov, a global authority on North Korea, says North Korea’s arms deals with Iran have been an open secret since the 1980s, and they even include ballistic missiles.
North Korea has continued to push ahead with its weapons of mass destruction development in spite of tough international sanctions. In September, the country tested four new weapons systems, including a new long-range cruise missile, a ballistic missile vehicle-mounted launch system, a hypersonic missile and an air defense missile.
The technology is becoming increasingly advanced.
Pyongyang also sells weapons and technology to countries in the midst of long-running civil wars, according to Kim Guk-song. In recent years, the United Nations has accused North Korea of supplying weapons to Syria, Burma, Libya and Sudan.
The U.N. warns that weapons developed in Pyongyang could end up in many troubled corners of the world.
“A loyal servant betrayed.”
Kim Guksong leads a privileged life in North Korea. He claims that Kim Jong Un’s aunt gave him a Mercedes-Benz car and allowed him to travel freely abroad to raise money for the North Korean leader. He said he raised millions in cash by selling rare metals and coal, which he brought home in a suitcase.
In a poor country where millions of people struggle with food shortages, it’s a life that almost no one can imagine, let alone actually live.
He says he has strong political connections through his marriage that allow him to move between different intelligence agencies. But by the same token, that relationship also puts him and his family at risk.
Soon after Kim Jong Un took power in 2011, he decided to purge those he saw as a threat, including his aunt, Jang Sung-taek. Jang Sung-taek has long been considered the de facto leader of North Korea by some as Kim’s health has gradually deteriorated.
Kim Guk-song said Jang Sung-taek’s name was more widely known than Kim Jong-un’s.
“At that time I didn’t think Jang Sung-taek would last long and I thought he would be exiled to the countryside,” he said.
Image credit, GETTY IMAGES
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People bow in front of a statue of North Korea’s late leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in February 2021.
But then, North Korean official media announced in December 2013 that Jang Sung-taek had been executed.
“I was very surprised, it was a fatal blow, I was shocked,” Kim said. “I immediately felt my life was threatened. I knew I couldn’t live in North Korea anymore.”
Kim was abroad when he read about the execution in the newspaper. He decided to make plans to flee to South Korea with his family.
“Leaving my ancestral grave and the country where my family was, and fleeing to South Korea, was emotionally the saddest decision I ever made, when South Korea was still a foreign land to me.” He said.
Even behind my sunglasses, I could see that the memories were hard for him.
One of the questions I kept asking during our many meetings was why he decided to speak out now.
“It’s the only responsibility I can do,” he said. “From now on, I will be more active in liberating my fellow Northerners from the dictatorship so they can enjoy real freedom.”
There are more than 30,000 defectors in South Korea, and only a handful have decided to give interviews to the media. The more high-profile you are, the higher the risk to you and your family.
There are also many people in South Korea who are skeptical of how defectors describe their lives. After all, how can they truly substantiate their stories?
Kim Guksong’s life is highly unusual. His account should be seen as part of the North Korean story, not the whole story. But his story gives us a glimpse of a regime that few have been able to escape, and shows us what it takes for that regime to survive.
“North Korea’s political society, their judgment, their thought processes, they all follow a belief in absolute obedience to the Supreme Leader,” he says, “and generation after generation, a ‘loyal heart’ is cultivated. “
The timing of this interview was also interesting. Kim Jong Un hinted that he might be willing to talk to South Korea in the near future if certain conditions are met.
But Kim also issued a warning.
“I’ve been here for many years, but North Korea hasn’t changed at all.” He said.
“The strategy we developed continues. What you need to know is that North Korea hasn’t changed even 0.01 percent.”