Spies in Triplicate

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov
7/1/2007

What is the “North Korean KGB?’’ This common question is actually rather meaningless _ not because North Korea does not have an analogue to the Soviet agency (it does), but because the structure of the North Korean “intelligence community’’ is remarkably complicated. In North Korea there are three major independent intelligence services _ and an array of minor sub-services.

Each service has its own field of responsibility and expertise, but in some areas they are compete fiercely. Presumably, such competition makes the North Korean leaders a bit less restive in their sleep: in a dictatorship, an excessive concentration of intelligence in one agency’s hands is fraught with danger.

Since we have mentioned the KGB, let’s start from North Korea’s closest analogue, the Ministry for Protection of State Security or MPSS. Back in the 1950s, the MPSS’s predecessor grew up absorbing a serious influence from the KGB. Like its Soviet prototype, the MPSS combines the functions of political police, counterintelligence, and political intelligence.

As a political police force, the MPSS runs a huge network of informers, manages the camps for political prisoners, and enforces manifold security regulations. As a counterintelligence agency, it does everything it can to prevent foreign spies from effecting infiltration into North Korea. And, finally, it is engaged in intelligence gathering overseas and, to some extent, in South Korea. A special role of this agency is emphasized by the fact that it is headed not by a regular minister but by Kim Jong Il himself. Yes, the “Dear Leader’’ is also the minister of his own security _ a wise arrangement, perhaps, taking into consideration the tendency of intelligence bosses to become too powerful.

However, the mighty MPSS is not very prominent when it comes to operations in South Korea. A North Korean peculiarity is the existence of the party’s own intelligence branch. The Korean Workers Party’s (KWP)own secret service is euphemistically called the Third Building _ after the number of the building in which the relevant departments are located. The Third Building bureaucracy consists of a few departments and bureaus, each with its peculiar tasks.

The KWP’s secret service has survived from the late 1940s when the party operated in both parts of the country. The Communist underground in the South, and the then powerful guerrilla movement, were managed by special departments of the KWP Central Committee. The South Korean Communist underground was wiped out in the early 1950s, but the related bureaucracy in the North survived and found justification for its existence (once created, bureaucracies are very difficult to kill). Its raison d’etre is the need to promote Juche/Communist ideas in the South, with the resurrection of the Communist movement as a supreme goal; a Communist-led unification is a more distant task. In the course of time, these goals were seen as more and more remote, but were never abandoned completely.

In fact, the Third Building is largely responsible for attempts to influence the South Korean political situation, and for gathering intelligence which makes such influence more efficient. The United Front Department, a part of the Third Building, is also responsible for clandestine operations in other countries where it strives to change the local attitudes in North Korea’s favor.

Since the Third Building should aim at starting local insurrections, many of its staff have undergone commando-style training. The only known political assassination in recent years was conducted by the officers of the Operational Department, which is a part of the Third Building. In 1997 they hunted down and shot dead Yi Han-yong, a relative of Kim Il-sung who had defected to the South and published some highly critical books about the North Korean ruling dynasty.

In addition to the MPSS and the Third Building, North Korea also has a military intelligence service whose operations largely target South Korea. Their major interest is the South Korean military and the USFK, as well as any intelligence which may be of use should a new war erupt on the Korean Peninsula.

Many people still remember the September 1996 incident when a North Korean submarine ran ashore on the eastern coast and was abandoned by the crew whose members became engaged in frequent clashes with the police and army. This was a routine operation of military intelligence that went wrong due to a navigational mistake. The commandos were supposed to survey the military installations on the coast, and then move back to the North, but it did not work as intended.

The efforts of North Korean intelligence services are concentrated on the South. But this does not mean that other countries are immune to their activity. The North Korean spies are especially active in Japan, and this was once again demonstrated by the dramatic events of 2001.

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  • ld

    Minor side note:

    Dr. Lankov is I think pretty much the only scholar who calls the 국가안전보위부 a “Ministry”. Everyone else considers the “부” at the end to be best translated as “department” – and for this organization to be a stand-alone body separate from the cabinet: the “State Security Department” in most older literature from back when its name was just the 국가보위부. All other North Korean government ministries are suffixed with “성” – for example the Ministry of Agriculture is the 농업성. The one exception to this – an important one in this case – is the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces which is also suffixed with “부” but is very clearly a full Ministry. Situation is complicated by the fact the prior to the 1998 Constitution the suffixing was exactly the opposite – all the ministries were suffixed with “부” but the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces was a “성” – this goofy retitling on the part of the North may be part of the source of Dr. Lankov’s “confusion” if thats what it is.

    Anyway…

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