SpyCast 6.20.23
Ep 591 | 6.20.23

"The North Korean Defector" – with Former DPRK Agent Kim, Hyun Woo


Andrew Hammond: Welcome to SpyCast, the official podcast of the International Spy Museum. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, the museum's historian and curator. Each week we explore some aspect of the world of intelligence and espionage, its past, its present, or its future. Coming up next on SpyCast--

Interpreter: One major difference between how NSA agent is being trained in North Korea compared to other intelligence agents in different countries, may be that North Korea's rigorous in teaching ideological education to its agents. It is fundamental and basic curriculum for all NSA agents to be taught the principles of Kim Il Sung-ism, and Kim Jong Il-ism.

Andrew Hammond: This week's guest is a double rarity, a North Korean defector and one who has come out from the shadows after nine years of silence. In 2014, Kim Hyun Woo was recalled back to his country from his tour in Beijing. He traveled south to the border with North Korea, but he suddenly stopped. He realized that if he went home, he would most probably be purged, a euphemism for executed, since he had found himself on the wrong side of a violent power struggle at the very heart of North Korean intelligence. He decided to go back to the Chinese capital, gather his immediate family, and go on the run, defecting to South Korea. After years under the radar, Dr. Kim finally broke his silence by speaking to yours truly for this special SpyCast. From Pyongyang to Seoul to the SpyCast studio in Washington DC, this is Dr. Kim's story. In this episode we discuss the journey of a defector, how intelligence officers are politically indoctrinated in North Korea, the "cult of personality" around Supreme Leader, Kim Jung Un, and the war against religion by North Korean intelligence agencies. A reminder that you can support us for free by A, subscribing to the show, and/or B, giving us a five-star podcast review. The original podcast for intelligence since 2006, we are SpyCast. Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. Thank you very much for coming to speak to us about your experiences, I very much appreciate it.

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: Thank you so much for inviting me to participate in this program. It is a great honor for myself as well.

Andrew Hammond: Thank you, thank you. So I just wondered, to start off, could you just tell us a little bit more about your time in North Korean intelligence? What did you do for the DPRK? What was your job title?

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: But if we describe my work perhaps the best American context, I work for a North Korean agency quite similar perhaps to U.S. FBI, controlling bureau of investigations for 17 years.

Andrew Hammond: Seventeen years. And you were born and raised in North Korea, Dr. Kim?

Interpreter: Yes, I was born in Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea, and I grew up in the capital.

Andrew Hammond: Did you have any family or friends in South Korea when you were growing up?

Interpreter: I did not have any relatives or family members living in South Korea.

Andrew Hammond: Okay, and can you tell me the name of the agency that's similar to the Federal Bureau of Investigation?

Interpreter: Yes, I served under the DPRK's agency, National Security Agency, NSA.

Andrew Hammond: And how long were you with it, you were with the NSA for 17 years, that's correct?

Interpreter: That is correct, 17 years, I only served in, at NSA.

Andrew Hammond: Okay. And help me understand the functions of this organization, does it have law enforcement capabilities, like the FBI or is it more similar to MI5 in Great Britain in the sense that it's counterintelligence, counterespionage, counterterrorism, and so forth?

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: You are correct, the North Korean National Security Agency is similar to both the functions of FBI and British MI5, in the sense that it does conduct intelligence and counterintelligence, and yet it is legally authorized to also implement North Korea's laws as well. The North Korea's criminal penalty laws specifically authorize NSA to carry out criminal penalties against those who commit crimes against the state.

Andrew Hammond: And our audience probably won't know much about North Korean intelligence. Can you just tell us briefly who are some of the other major agencies?

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: North Korea's intelligence agencies can be divided into two sections, two divisions, one; intelligence, another counterintelligence. The intelligence part, the agency is responsible for sending overseas agents to other countries, that is called, literally, Intelligence Agency. The agency that I served, National Security Agency, we are responsible counterintelligence, so our job is prevent other countries espionage against DPRK regime. So I would describe the North Korea's intelligence as headed by these two main organizations; Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency.

Andrew Hammond: Okay, that's very helpful. And is there also a military intelligence agency, so in Russia you have the SVR, the FSB, and the GRU. Is there something similar to the GRU in North Korea?

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: For North Korea the intelligence agency that I already described, it is headed, organized, under the North Korean Military.

Andrew Hammond: Okay.

Interpreter: However, within the North Korean military, to ensure monitoring of ideological conformity of North Korean military personnel, North Korean People's Liberation Army also have People's Army security agencies running and overseeing espionage or counterintelligence within the military divisions.

Andrew Hammond: Okay, so both the Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency are, they're run by the military? There's no civilian intelligence agencies?

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: Yes, to provide the background, what we now describe called Intelligence Agency of DPRK, it was formed by combining previous several intelligence agencies together as a uniform body and then later, Intelligence Agency was reassigned under the jurisdiction of the North Korean military. One exception however, is that agency I served, National Security Agency, we are separate from North Korean military.

Andrew Hammond: Just very briefly, you know, we're not going to spend too long on the organizational dynamics, but I'm just trying to understand the architecture of North Korean intelligence. When did these changes take place? Are their political reasons for the changes or is it purely for efficiency or is it for some other reason when these changes took place?

Interpreter: Very important question, very important question.

Andrew Hammond: I'm glad.

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: Excellent question. So originally in the early days of the DPRK, North Korean Army did have its own specific agency, similar to GRU in Soviet Union. This North Korean Army's intelligence agency at the time was only responsible for conducting intelligence activities and counterintelligence against hostile militaries of enemy countries. Separate from the military side, the intelligence at the time, the early days of North Korean regime's history, the North Korean Labor Party, the ruling party, had also its intelligence agencies carrying out intelligence on behalf of the party. So, in the beginning, the organization was set up in such a way that the military and party each had their own intelligence organ. When Kim Jong Un, the leader, the new current leader, he became-- he became inaugurated as a leader, he was more familiar with the works, the tasks of the military side of the intelligence and the National Security Agency. But less with the Labor Party's intelligence organ. After coming to power made a new decree that previous intelligence organs, there was three organs, under the North Korean Labor Party, they were all reassigned, combined, integrated with existing military intelligence organs as a uniform body. Kim Jung Un, he trusted at the time, the director of North Korean military intelligence, director by the name of Kim Yong Chol, and therefore he promoted Kim Yong Chol to be the new, the first director of Intelligence Agency that combined previous military and Labor Party intelligence organs. That's how we got into the agency we see today. So since then, with the creation of Intelligence Agency, Director Kim Yong Chol, he was given the position to oversee, coordinate all the intelligence activities of North Korean State. This is a sign that of many high ranking leaders in North Korea, Kim Yong Chol, the Intelligence Agency director, he is most favored and trusted by the leader. As a result, Kim Yong Chol already has the privilege and power as the director of Secure National Intelligence Agency. He received additional position as a key secretary of the Labor Party. So now he has an additional position, also within the Labor Party as well.

Andrew Hammond: I'm just trying to understand these changes. So am I right in thinking this is connected to Kim Jong Un's insecurity, his lack of authority, he's young, he gets the top job, he doesn't have a lot of experience and this is his way of asserting control over the country?

Interpreter: Accurate analysis.

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: In two thousand, I believe '12 or '13, when Kim Jong Un became the leader after his father, Kim Jong-Il passed away, within the party, within the ruling Labor Party, Kim Jong Un's political clout was at the time still weak. One organ Kim Jong Un at the time, most trusted, most relied on, was not the Party, but the military intelligence organs, and Kim Yong Chol was at the time, one of the few high ranking DPRK officials whom Kim Jong Un trusted, therefore restructuring the intelligence organs and concentrating the power on his trusted associate, Kim Yong Chol, was important steps for Kim Jong Un in his early days in power to consolidate his control within the state apparatus. The [inaudible] may have also seen him at least in cameras, in TVs, as Kim Yong Chol was the one who's been to the United States several times during the Trump administration and played a key part in organizing Trump-Kim Jong Un summit. That's him.

Andrew Hammond: And I'm just trying to understand, Kim Jong Un's relationship with the Party. Why did he favor the military over the Party? Why is he not more in control of the party and is all of this related to the removal of Marxist language and communist language from the North Korean Constitution? I'm just trying to understand the evolution of ideology in North Korea compared to the structure of the regime.

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: To answer the first part of your question, yes, when Kim Jong Un first became the leader of North Korea, he trusted the National Security Agency and the military organs much more than the actual Labor Party apparatus. Consolidation of [inaudible] was implemented so first strengthening his control over the military organs, the National Security Agencies, and using both of these organs the hard power to then go after the Labor Party leaders that he suspected where had questionable loyalty toward his leadership. Kim Jong Un first became a leader in 2012, but it actually took him four or five years to complete control over the Labor Party. In 2016 or '17, Kim Jong Un finally became the first Secretary of the Labor Party, which signified that now the party apparatus was safely under Kim Jong Un's leadership. In 2017, when Kim Jong Un's political control was fully consolidated, he removed Kim Won-Hong, who was previously director of National Security Agency, supporter of Kim Jong Un but Kim Jong Un decided it was time for him to be let go. In South Korea expression, "when the hunting dog has finished its mission, there's no need for the dog, so the dog is removed or even eaten by the owner."

Andrew Hammond: And was he, was he eaten? Or was he removed, or something else?

Interpreter: Yes, he was purged.

Andrew Hammond: Executed?

Interpreter: What I know is that-- no, he was not executed, he was demoted to a provincial office away from the inner circle of power.

Andrew Hammond: And help me understand what's happening with communism. So communism is removed, as I understand, from the constitution and a lot of the world still see North Korea as a communist state but North Korea doesn't see itself any longer as a communist state. So just help me understand that transition.

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: I applaud your very insightful observation of North Korean political system.

Andrew Hammond: Thank you.

Interpreter: Your observation is very correct. Under previous two leaders, Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, they did officially proclaim to secede and aspire for the principles of Marx Leninism. This new leader, Kim Jong Un, especially by the end, near the recent years, Kim Jong Un's regime has removed reference to Marx Leninism within the party language. As a replacement, rather than emphasizing affirming commitment to Marx Leninism, Kim Jong Un's regime now affirm allegiance to Kim Il-Sung-ism and Kim Jong-Il-ism. The ideology of the father and grandfather. Now, today's North Korean regime is much more explicit in the declaration that party's identity, party's ideological root does not originate from Marx and Lenin, but rather it originates from Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, the two previous leaders of North Korea. That's the Party's identity. Your accurate observation that communism, that reference, has been deleted from the Labor Party, that's correct. Kim Jong Un himself has made a judgment that what we often describe as communism is abstract and unrealistic and unapplicable for North Korea's today situation. Though communism is understood by North Korea regime, it dates back to Soviet era, particularly in the early days of Soviet industrialization. And later, North Korea redefined the meaning of communism as their particular political system in which its domestic mass, the populations, gets reassured basic living standard. That is communism as the regime defines.

Andrew Hammond: Yeah.

Interpreter: And now Kim Jong Un's reinterpretation is that communism as a term is no longer applicable to today's North Korea, so that term is no longer needed. That's why North Korea has redefined its ideological root solely based on the policies and legacies of the two previous leaders.

Andrew Hammond: Is there also a danger in doing this for the regime because if you say that you're communist, this is an ideology that governs the whole of society, it's a total system that explains government, it explains the market, it explains how every part of the organism relates to one another, but if it's just done the family, if it's just done the grandfather, the father, and the son, that's a very thin base of power. At some point, surely people are going to think, you know, this one family line, the world does not revolve around them but for Marxism or communism, it's a total system, it explains everything. So is there also a danger in this narrowing of the ideological basis of the regime?

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: I agree, from a rational perspective that is correct, yes. Yet, this replacement of Marxism to Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il-ism, was possible in North Korean context. There's two factors; first, North Korean populace, domestic citizens, much more likely to conform to whatever ideological changes imposed by the new leader is first factor, and second, some are paradoxically North Korea's regime's assessment is that holding onto your traditional rhetoric of Marx Leninism, that exposes inconsistency of the regime to its population. To continue to use the traditional Marx Leninist rhetoric. North Korea's main propaganda which is emphasized what could be described as North Korea exceptionalism, the concept that North Korea is unique, unique even in a socialist practice from other socialist countries and therefore socialist North Korea's foundation originates from its creator, Kim Il-Sung. So that's the ideological, unifying principle identity of the state. In North Korea should, North Korea academics express protest that Kim Jung-Il-ism or Kim Il-Sung-ism is either a deviation from traditional Marx Leninism or goes contrary to Marx Leninism or that Kim Il-Sung's achievements is mainly a shadow or a copied version of original Marxist principle. Those expressions or philosophical disagreements would be subject to suppression and punishment.

Andrew Hammond: And can I ask, just before we move on to intelligence to focus more on that, is Kim Jung-Il's haircut part of the ideological framework for North Korea? I'm being playful, obviously.

Interpreter: Yes. Kim Jong Un, today's leader, he has a mental complex, a complicated perception about his direct father, Kim Jong-Il. Even in North Korea, compared to the first of the Kim Il-Sung, who’s a God-like figure, Kim Jong-Il actually has a more shady background story about him, the second leader. For example, today's state, the state, North Korea State, does not reveal, publicly disclose, who was the first wife of Kim Jong-Il. That's not a public knowledge. As we thought, Kim Jong Un is more likely to have thought to emulate his grandfather more than the father. North Korean populace are more likely to still retain respect, reverence, toward the first leader Kim Il-Sung, more than the second leader. There's still nostalgia among North Korean population that at least in Kim Il-Sung era, the pre-fall of communism, the fall of the Soviet Union, North Korea's living standard was okay back then. The famine and starvation in 1990s, under Kim Jung-Il's era, the second leader, is still strongly present in the memories of North Korean population. That's why Kim Jong Un wants to evoke people's nostalgia, not about Kim Jong-Il, but under better times lived under Kim Il-Sung, '60s and '70s.

Andrew Hammond: To clarify, Korea is a peninsula in Northeast Asia, bordering China to the north and Japan across the Korean Straight to the south. Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and held onto it until the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II in 1945. Whereupon it was occupied by the United States and the Soviet Union along the 38th parallel. That is the 38th degree of latitude north of the equator. This occupation was meant to be temporary but Cold War dynamics ensured that Korea would be divided along ideological line. A situation that has persisted until the present day. In 1950, the DPRK, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, backed by the Soviet Union, invaded the South in hope of uniting the country along communist lines. The United Nations, led by the U.S., intervened on the side of South Korea and the South Korean capital city of Seoul was captured by the North Koreans, who then went on to capture almost all of South Korea, except for a small corner of the country in the southeast, around the port city of Busan. The United Nations force, led by General Douglas MacArthur, counter attacked and in turn, almost overran the whole of North Korea up to the Chinese border. This led China to enter the war, forcing the UN to withdraw back to the 38th parallel line. After a two-year stalemate an armistice was signed in 1953, creating a demilitarized buffer zone between the two countries. Note this was not a peace treaty, so technically the two countries are still at war, with the grandson of the leader who oversaw the North Korean invasion of the South in 1950, still in power. For me, for the listeners of the podcast, it's important that they understand the context within which North Korean intelligence takes place, because there's no point in understanding this if you don't understand how the state functions. And how did you join North Korean intelligence? How did you get recruited?

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: At my young age, I wanted to be an intelligence agent, someone who does intelligence. Even in North Korea they read [inaudible] novels, he read it and that inspired him.

Andrew Hammond: Oh wow.

Interpreter: As I grew older, being an intelligence agent was my dream, it was my career dream as the best way for me to serve the country and therefore I prepared hard in order to be recruited into this agency.

Andrew Hammond: Is it very difficult competitive to join this agency?

Interpreter: Absolutely. First thing is, even in order to even consider for the position as agent for the National Security Agency, your social class background has to be inspectable, without flaws. As National Security Agency is at the forefront in defending the regime from the enemies abroad, absolutely loyalty has to be, has to be verified. Next, after social background has been verified, it is required for the possible applicant to have satisfiable resume, such as having completed minimum military service. And National Security Agency it actually has a university under its oversight to train its agents. So three main criteria that I had to pass in order to actually work for National Security Agency was I had to prove the spotless cleanliness of my personal class background as loyal to the regime, I had to prove that I completed a required mandatory military service for the North Korean military, and I had to attend and graduate from the university run by National Security Agency. And these three criteria are just or the basic requirements of all NSA agents. After this assessment complete all three criteria, I underwent the review examination process, I passed, and then I began working for the agency. Now there's actually change in how the North Korean National Security Agency recreate new personnel. Especially because development of technology, I have heard that today's National Security Agency of North Korea also specially recruit certain applicants with proven talents in core technology field.

Andrew Hammond: Wow, this is really, really fascinating. Did Dr. Kim grow up feeling Korean, North Korean, communist or some variation of the three?

Interpreter: I guess the first part, he even grew up in North Korea, Dr. Kim identified Korean identity and North Korean identity as separate. While North Koreans and South Koreans shared a common cultural roots as Korean ethnic group, with years of divisions, with cultural economic changes, I have recognized, I have always perceived distinctive characteristics between North Korean populace and South Korean populace.

Andrew Hammond: Okay. And now, like now does Dr. Kim think that Korea will ever be reunited? Because you can go to Germany and see there's differences between East and West, or North and South. There's differences in the United States between East and West and North and South, so you can always find a way to [inaudible] but you can always find a way to unite. And does he think that Korea will be reunited and would he like Korea to be reunited?

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: First, as a background, I observe that East/West Germany's relationship is very different from today's North and South Korea, as even during the Cold War there were still interactions between West and East German populace, while there is a near shutdown of communication interactions between inter-Korean societies. For myself, I envision, I aspire for, I desire for the day when reunification is achieved. To be more specific however, when I envision reunification, I am envisioning reunified career under a liberal democratic system as opposed to say, unified Korea under more North Korean system. That I oppose, not only is it unlikely but I cannot wish that kind of envision. My desire is that they unify Korea, even North Korean populace or population living in Northern part of Korean peninsula, with a guaranteed fundamental standard and rights as humans.

Andrew Hammond: And help us understand the training that you went through, so you spoke about the university for the National Security Agency. What other kinds of training did you undertake? Is there anything that's very specific to training a North Korean intelligence officer as opposed to a British intelligence officer, a South Korean intelligence officer and so forth?

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: University under the oversight of the National Security Agency previously its name was "Pyongyang Technical College," that was the original name. The name was written for obvious purpose of making sure the university is not known as intelligence training school. But under Kim Jong Un in 2012, Pyongyang Technical College, the name became explicitly changed to, National Security Agency Political Training School. One major difference between how NSA agent is being trained in North Korea compared to other intelligence agents in different countries, may be that North Korea is rigorous in teaching ideological education to its agents. It is fundamental and basic curriculum for all NSA agents to be taught the principles of Kim Il-Song-ism and Kim Jong-Il-ism. Afterwards, each agent, as intelligence agents or counterintelligence agents, are taught technical training necessary for doing their jobs. Some of the things that intelligence agents are taught is how to manage spies, how to detect, spot a spy, how to trail after a spy, how to wiretap a potential spy suspect, how to decode a classified documents, how to be great at Taekwondo, and to improve their weapons shooting skills. [inaudible]. Furthermore, because the National Security Agency's authorized by the state to implement criminal penalties against dissidents, each of the agencies are also trained to conduct investigations, understand the legal provisions of the criminal penalty courts.

Andrew Hammond: So, help me understand, as a counterintelligence agent in the United States, quite often you're investigating diplomats operating under official cover, you're investigating foreign travelers or visitors or business people, but in the West, North Korea is known as the "hermit kingdom" sometimes. So it's a closed system that's very difficult to get into, even for South Koreans, so is most of the counterintelligence energy directed towards internal dissidents, rather than foreigners who are there trying to conduct espionage? Because it's what's called for many, say CI officers a denied area, it's a very difficult place to, you know, you can't turn up there as an American and just walk around and start recruiting people, it's very difficult. So yeah, just help me understand that, is most of the energy going towards North Korean dissidents or political subversives, compared to the CIA who would be looking at Russian diplomats, Chinese businessman, et cetera?

Interpreter: North Korean NSA targets both foreigners and domestic citizens. North Korea National Security Agency has two directorate if you will, first director is most similar to CIA in a sense that North Korea still have foreign embassies, the ones with diplomatic relationship with North Korea, stationed in Pyongyang with the embassies and consulates, UN mission is still in North Korea as well. There's also multiple trade liaison office in North Korea, so there's pockets of foreigners living in North Korea, they are monitored by Section 1 within the National Security Agency. Section 2, however, focuses on domestic population to ensure there is no activities, subversive, threatening against the regime being conducted by North Korean civilians themselves.

Andrew Hammond: And did Dr. Kim work in one or two or both during his career?

Interpreter: I did both of them.

Andrew Hammond: Oh, okay. Okay. And let's move on to some operations, can you tell us more about your time in Beijing?

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: One of the important work of a national security agents being dispatched to Beijing in China is to ensure that other North Korean citizens passport holders do not try to defect to other countries. To prevent that from happening. Another important task is should Kim Jong Un himself come to Beijing for a visit, already locally dispatched national security agents in Beijing have a responsibility to ensure all the logistics are planned and carried out to maximize the security of North Korean leader on his actual visit. So these two tasks are common duties of all national security agencies. Afterwards, then you have a more specific designated task for individual agents. To give an example, North Korea operate North Korean restaurants in China so some national security agents are responsible for monitoring these North Korean run restaurants. Very distinctive task. Other national security agents are given specific tasks to monitor the activities of other embassy staff and personnel in North Korean embassy to see what are they doing, such as are they trying to defect? Some national security agents in China, they're given a specific task of procurement, to find whether there is foreign made latest technological items that would be very helpful for North Korea's surveillance technologies, monitoring, wiretapping technologies, where there's any extra equipment they could buy, purchase in China, and import it back to North Korea. So that is a very specific task for specific agents.

Andrew Hammond: In Beijing, when you were trying to monitor people defecting, was that people defecting to Beijing or using Beijing as a staging ground to go to another country; the United States or South Korea? And also, in Beijing, I'm assuming that this is one of the places where North Koreans and South Koreans come across each other, have spent time in Beijing and eaten at Korean restaurants. So the first question, defect to China or to other countries. The second question; Beijing is a place where North Koreans and South Koreans meet up and espionage activities that could take place there.

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: First, it is very unlikely for a North Korean person to directly defect to China. The reason is because if they do there's a huge risk that China would simply return that person back to North Korea.

Andrew Hammond: That's what I thought, I just wanted to clarify.

Interpreter: Yes. By law, by criminal law, North Korean civilian in China or overseas, should not interact with South Korean citizen or civilian. That's the principle, but obviously covertly, informally, do some North Korean individuals meet with South Korean individuals in Beijing and other locations? Yes.

Andrew Hammond: But this must be a good opportunity for espionage, so for Dr. Kim, this is an opportunity to recruit South Koreans or for South Korean intelligence officers, it's a good opportunity to recruit North Koreans because they're in this third space that's not neutral but more neutral.

Interpreter: Absolutely.

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: So, and so it's of course most likely is happening under the wire, both sides, both intelligence agencies engage and try to recruit the other side, likely, that's what I predict, it's just that I don't know about it. And the most likely candidate for this kind of operations of course, China. China's intelligence agencies would also target North Korean and South Korean civilians living in China for China's intelligence operations. So they're the most likely candidate.

Andrew Hammond: Sure.

Interpreter: And North Korea knows this, which is why North Korean regime, despite the former alliance, also have an attitude of carefulness even wariness, wariness toward Chinese government. Especially the areas of intelligence.

Andrew Hammond: And did Dr. Kim ever brush up against MI6, CIA, or any other Western intelligence agencies?

Interpreter: Fortunately, never. Never.

Andrew Hammond: As far as you know.

Interpreter: To be humble, I do not think I am a prized, prized asset for those prestigious intelligence agencies of the west.

Andrew Hammond: Okay. To help you digest this episode, here is a short interlude in the family who have ruled North Korea since Ho Chi Minh was president and Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were invaders. Kim Jong Un is the current 39-year-old supreme leader of North Korea. His father was Kim Jung-Il who ruled the country until 2011, and his grandfather was Kim Il-Sung who established what went on to become the Kim Dynasty and ruled until 1994. As for the names of the current leaders grandfather and father, the beget the term, Kim Il-Sung-ism and Kim Jung-Il ism, the official ideology of North Korea. Indeed, it is ideology that has allowed such a peculiar state, comparatively speaking, that exists for over 70 years. Initially it was a Marxist Leninist state. The grandfather was involved with the Communist Movement and was a party member and for these reasons set up by Joseph Stalin as the leader of the Soviet occupied territory, north of the 38th parallel. As the Cold War progressed, the two communist behemoths that were the Soviet Union and China, diverged in their interpretations of Marxism, the so-called Final Soviet Split. This led to much smaller North Korea establishing a degree of neutrality and independence by declaring the Kim Il-Sung-ism was now the official ideology of the state. This was augmented by his son, Kim Jung-Il to become Kim Il-Sung-ism and Kim Jung-Il-ism. Okay. So what is this ideology in a nutshell? One, it emphasizes the notion of North Korean self-reliance, uniqueness, and inner ideological conformity, and two, reverence for its leaders from the Kim bloodline who are all-knowing heroic figures, who are gloriously leading the country towards the future. As one scholar points out; it is the idea that "human beings don't need God, they have the Kim family." Can Dr. Kim tell us about a specific operation, a specific event that he was involved in that will illustrate his position in the National Security Agency? So a specific, it could be a recruitment, an operation, just something to tell the story.

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: So one example is by constitution, North Korea guarantee religious liberty, in reality practice of religious worship is banned, forbidden by the state. However, in North Korea, there are, we call them "underground house churches," in which believers, so religious believers, secretly congregate for their religious worship outside the surveillance of the state. The state and the national security agencies consider, assess these members of underground churches as regime threat. Specifically I want to talk about one province in North Korea called Hwanghae South Province, which is actually closer to the border, this was 1998, there was a family involved in agriculture, so there was a case of a family of four and then little further away from the family, there was some cousins. They were underground church members, they were, this was a family that had been secret believers for many generations, even before the coming of communist regime they were believers and they kept their faith all these years. For many decades under the communist suppression they were still practicing this faith covertly. On Sunday at night, quietly, they would host worship among themselves. So now for my work, local national security agents eventually heard about this information, that there is a suspected religious activity going on in our town. So for a whole week, local national security agents monitored this family. In daytime when the family were out at work, they entered the house to install those hidden spy cameras as well as listening devices. And through the surveillance we were able to detect on Sunday night, I guess one of the family members, the son, carrying a bible, moving from one place to another, for the purpose of religious gathering. So hiding in the forest, all the security agents, they actually took the picture of one of the house member, moving from one place to another to attend religious gathering carrying a bible, that was caught on camera. Even the pictures of the family praying, that was also recorded, caught. So full perfect evidence of the crime was gathered by national security agents. They came with all the agents, rushed into the house and arrested them on the act of worshiping, grabbed them, interrogated them, and then executed them for the crime against it.

Andrew Hammond: But when mentally did you take the decision to defect? Like was there, was this something that had been building for a longer period of time, maybe this operation against the religious family, these types of things, or was it one event that happened that just changed everything that you thought you knew? Like just help us understand that process of making this very big decision of defecting.

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: There was no particularly drastic change in my attitude but to provide you a context, there was a power struggle within the National Security Agency in 2012 to '13, as Kim Jong Un began to consolidate his own control over the agency. There was a conflict between existing high ranking members and new members appointed by Kim Jong Un personally, power struggle. So in the power struggle, the consequence is one side won, the losing side was purged from power. And I was on the losing side, so I was on the side opposed to the new faction being pushed by Kim Jong Un himself. So if I was not based in Beijing, but I was based in North Korea, I would have also been purged from National Security Agency. While I was in Beijing, for my own trustworthy colleagues, but inside I had the inside information on the change in power dynamics in national security agencies, I have heard of it, so did not go back to North Korea, instead, I requested asylum. That's how it began.

Andrew Hammond: This is helpful because I did not understand the nature of the defection. I just want to understand how much of a question mark was there over your defection--

Interpreter: Questions mark?

Andrew Hammond: From South Korea. So a North Korean intelligence officer turns up and says, I want to, I want to claim asylum, immediately you must think, this is a plan, this is an intelligence operation so, just help us understand that process.

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: I did receive obviously review examines entering South Korea for the purpose of South Korean government to check my background and conduct process in which my legal status could be changed from North Korea to now a South Korean citizen. So that legal process and that review process, I had to undergo after I came to arrive to South Korea. It is possible, yes, since I am, I was an agent for North Korean intelligence agency, my counterpart South Korean intelligence agency initially might have been more prudent in wanting to conduct background checks on my intention. It is possible. However, my impression was that regardless of what they thought internally, those who screened me, the officials who screened me were welcoming, supportive of me, I did not feel after coming to South Korea, that I was monitored with suspicion by South Korean intelligence. So I was able to leave, adjust to a new life in South Korea without feeling that kind of pressure.

Andrew Hammond: What would you say to other North Korean intelligence officers who would like to get out, who would like to defect or go for asylum in South Korea or another country? What would you say to them?

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: What I want to tell to this potential North Korean intelligence agent who's thinking of asylum is, don't think too long, do it. Take decisive action.

Andrew Hammond: Okay. Okay. A couple simple questions and we'll wrap up. So one of them is, what do you think the world most misunderstands about North Korea? Because it's something that, especially in the West, the hermit kingdom, you know, is this inscrutable place that no one really knows what's happening, so enlighten the listeners, what's the one thing that you would like to stress to help them better understand North Korea?

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: First of all, that's a very broad question. It is, I mean it is true that many people, obviously it's very difficult to have a comprehensive outlook on North Korea's inner state, yes. So common sources of how the outside world gets information on North Korea is the simple test, you either get the informations from tourists, from the few diplomatic staff in North Korea, or from spies, intelligence agencies, who are somehow able to plant the agents in North Korea, or from listening to defectors like Dr. Kim. So these are the common resources in which we get information out from North Korea. First, so any information that's a CIA or MI5, so if Western or overseas intelligence agencies are able to acquire classified information, likely they're only going to share it within the agencies and it's not going to be an open source datas for us public, no. So therefore, most research, most publications in North Korea is likely based on one of two sources; either eye witness accounts of foreigners, like tourists, businesspeople, or diplomats who have been to North Korea and came out, that's one source. Or, it comes from North Koreans who have left the country. It's one of the two. So, certain organizations with certain you might say progressive, for lack of a better word, it's an ideological perspective on North Korea, much more likely to accept these accounts at face value and share it without screening, without filtering. One restrictions, which are big restrictions on relying on sources from foreigners entering North Korea and returning is that these huge restrictions that North Korea regime poses on what foreigners can see and watch and read in North Korea. So data is the frame. But even defectors accounts is limited and this is even North Korean defectors, they are speaking from their own individual personal experience, so very restrictive to their own experience. And each individual defectors come from different parts of North Korea. So that's their limitations. So many of the defectors accounts we have, those are not sufficient for us to really get down into some of the hard data about say North Korea's nuclear program, or North Korea's royal family, even defectors, most of them, do not have access to those privately contained informations of the state. That is why the question on what is the international perception that needs to be corrected about North Korea? Right now in our interview, it's difficult for me to pinpoint which one because of sparsity of informations, selectivity of informations on specific fields. Yes.

Andrew Hammond: Okay. Just to come to the end now, so for defectors of some intelligence agencies, there's a degree of danger in doing that. We have seen this historically, we've seen it recently with Russia, so I just want to understand, is there something that is in your mind on a daily basis when you're thinking about it, that you're worried about it, how much do you have to be concerned about your safety and so forth?

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: So the one thing I have taken as precautionary measures, recognizing the potential risk to my life, safety of myself, living in South Korea as a defector is, I have refrained for the past nine years on any public activities. I have refrained from public publicized activities. To be candid, even this, like this open source interview, for me this required me to take mental decisions and I obviously feel certain weight of burden as I share my life before the public listeners.

Andrew Hammond: Well I very much appreciate Dr. Kim doing so. Final question; how is he enjoying his visit to America? Is this his first time here and is he enjoying it?

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: Ever since I have arrived in South Korea, United States and Washington DC were the top cities I wanted to visit going abroad. So I am, I feel honored, I feel joyful to be in DC right now.

Andrew Hammond: Okay, well thanks ever so much, I really appreciated speaking to you and I've learned a lot, so thank you very much, Dr. Kim.

[ Dr. Kim speaks Korean ]

Interpreter: Thank you.

Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of SpyCast. Please follow us on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Coming up on next week's show--

>> Unidentified Person: The primary spies that the Venetians used were the most unexeptional men, thrown into the most exceptional circumstances. In most cases, we don't know who they are. There's just a name and that's it, because they were not important, they were primarily banished criminals who offered to become spies just to get a revocation of the banishment and some cash.

Andrew Hammond: If you have feedback, you can reach us by email at spycast.spymuseum.org, or on Twitter @intlspycast. If you go to our page at the cyberwire.com/podcasts/spycast, you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes, full transcripts, and almost 600 episodes in our back catalog. I'm your host, Andrew Hammond, and my podcast content partner is Erin Dietrick. The rest of the team involved in the show is Mike Mincey, Memphis Vaughn III, Emily Coletta, Afua Anokwa, Elliot Peltzman, Tré Hester, and Jen Eiben. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage related artifacts; the International Spy Museum.

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