Seoul, S. Korea(Chosun): North Korea’s Reconnaissance Bureau, the new integrated agency in charge of spy operations against the South, has become the focus of attention after speculation that it had a hand in sinking the Navy corvette Cheonan and the arrest of two agents in a plot to assassinate a senior defector.
The melodramatic plot apparently targeted Hwang Jang-yop (87), a former secretary of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party and chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly, who is the highest-ranking defector from the communist country. The two spies are said to have had orders from Lt. Gen. Kim Yong-chol, the chief of the Reconnaissance Bureau, to “cut Hwang’s head off.”
Won Sei-hoon, the director of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, told lawmakers on April 6 that a North Korean official operating in Beijing said the Cheonan tragedy was the brainchild of the same Kim Yong-chol.
Intelligence sources say the Reconnaissance Bureau was created in February 2009 by merging the espionage departments of the Workers’ Party, including a unit known as “Room 35,” and military reconnaissance operation units. The bureau oversees all espionage operations against South Korea. Lt. Gen. Kim is a hawk in the North Korean military who visited the Kaesong Industrial Complex in November 2008 and threatened South Korean businesses to leave. Although placed under the People’s Armed Forces, it is “directly controlled” by the powerful National Defense Commission under the supervision of Gen. O Kuk-ryol, the commission’s vice chairman, according to an intelligence source.
Experts say South Korea should be more wary of O than Kim. A former Air Force commander, O (79) served as the director of operations at the Workers’ Party for 20 years handling espionage missions. O is said to have masterminded infiltration techniques using semi-submersible vessels and hang gliders. “He is a consummate strategist,” said one high-ranking North Korean defector. “He is also very loyal to Kim Jong-il and has gained his trust.”
When he was chief of staff between 1979 and 1988, O spearheaded efforts to modernize the North Korean military. He was demoted after clashing with O Jin-woo, a key officer, over reforms but was saved when Kim Jong-il came to his rescue. O is said to be deeply involved in efforts to pave the way for a smooth transfer of power from Kim Jong-il to his son.
Ryu Dong-ryeol, a researcher at the Police Science Institute, said North Korea’s clandestine operations against South Korea will become “increasingly combative” as they are led by O and Kim Yong-chol. The Workers’ Party led clandestine operations over the last 60 years, and Room 35 was involved in terror attacks abroad, including the bombing of the KAL passenger jet in 1987 as well as the bizarre kidnapping campaign of the 1970s and 80s.
But in the latter half of 2008, when Kim Jong-il had recovered from a severe stroke, the party was reportedly criticized for achieving very little. The result was the creation of the Reconnaissance Bureau, putting the military in charge instead.
“We must remember that there were many violent incidents back in 1968, when hawkish military officials led espionage operations against the South,” said one South Korean intelligence official. On Jan. 21, 1968, a team of North Korean commandos sneaked across the border and attempted to assassinate President Park Chung-hee, and the North attacked the U.S. Navy spy ship Pueblo and imprisoned its crew on Jan. 23. In October that year, armed North Korean guerrillas clashed with South Korean soldiers in Uljin and Samcheok in the East Sea.
There are some similarities in North Korea’s political situation in 1968 and 2010. Now as then, the successor to the North Korean leadership is uncertain. Kim Jong-il was 26 in 1968, while his third son and heir apparent Jong-un is 27 this year. Experts say North Korea may resort to bold military actions like it did in 1968, in order to strengthen Jong-un’s grip on power. “Kim Jong-un is believed to be undergoing leadership training at the National Defense Commission,” said one North Korean source. “And since O and Kim are both key officials in the commission, the North is likely to take bold military steps as part of Jong-un’s succession.”
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