Apart from nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has another secret lethal weapon: an army of spies and secret agents.
Experts believe the highly mysterious and well-trained North Korean agents have remained active over the years. Among other things, they are known to have played a key role in the notorious Korean Air flight 858 bombing 30 years ago and the recent assassination of Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un’s elder paternal half-brother, in Malaysia.
So how exactly does Pyongyang recruit and train its spies? And are North Korean spies under current leader Kim Jong-un different from those during the reign of his late father Kim Jong-il?
The memoir titled “The Tears of My Soul” written by former North Korean secret agent Kim Hyon-hui, who was responsible for blowing up a South Korean airliner and killing all 115 passengers and crew members on board in 1987, offers us a rare glimpse into the secret lives of North Korean spies.
According to Kim Hyon-hui – who was tried, sentenced to death, and then dramatically pardoned by the South Korean government following her capture overseas and extradition to South Korea — North Korean agents are highly professional, and only the best of the best would be recruited by the authorities to become spies.
New recruits would be sent to a secret compound located on the outskirts of Pyongyang run by the North Korean spy agency, where they would undergo the most rigorous training on spycraft such as the making of improvised explosive devices, hand-to-hand combat skills, the use of hidden and concealable weapons, physical fitness and foreign languages.
For instance, Kim spent seven years in the secret spy school learning all the skills mentioned above as well as Japanese, which was taught by abducted Japanese teachers. It is believed that over the years the North Korean government kidnapped at least 13 Japanese nationals and made them teach Japanese in its spy schools.
However, despite being trained as masters of spycraft, the North Korean agents often share a fatal weakness: since they have very little contact with the outside world during their training, they are totally unfamiliar with what normal daily life is like in the West and lack even the most basic interpersonal skills. And such ignorance and the resulting odd behavior would often prove a dead giveaway to their true identity when they are sent on overseas missions.
For example, Kim Hyon-hui herself was arrested in Bahrain while posing as a Japanese tourist using a fake passport.
And that is exactly why after Kim Jong-un assumed power in 2011, he put a lot of effort into narrowing the material gap between North Koreans and their western counterparts by promoting consumerism among his people, as well as introducing western gadgets such as cellphones, 4D movie theaters and amusement rides into his country in an apparent effort to allow his people to get in touch with the real world so that they would be less likely to “waver” in face of western capitalist temptation in the future.
In fact contrary to popular belief, the young Kim Jong-un is actually a lot more flexible and pragmatic when it comes to maintaining his rule compared to his father and grandfather. To be more precise, he seems to understand the importance of ruling his people with both carrot and stick and providing some sort of “safety valves” that can allow his people to reduce their tensions and grievances so as to maintain domestic stability and secure his rule.
That probably explains why even though today Pyongyang still has very little tolerance for dissent, many North Koreans are still able to download South Korean TV dramas and pop music to their cellphones, with the authorities often looking the other way.
During the eras of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, many North Koreans had relatives in the South, and such cross-border bloodline relationship, to a certain extent, motivated North Koreans to support their government’s bid for re-unification and kept them behind the Kim regime.
However, as most of the people who still had relatives in South Korea had died by the time Kim Jong-un took power, the threat of western aggression has replaced the call for re-unification as the main rallying point pitched by state propaganda under his rule.
During an interview she gave to western media back in 2013, Kim Hyon-hui commented that Kim Jong-un was too young and too inexperienced, and was desperate to gain the loyalty of the military by carrying out nuclear tests.
Yet in my opinion, it has become increasingly apparent that six years into his rule, North Korea under Kim Jong-un has changed so much that it is no longer the homeland Kim Hyon-hui used to know. Perhaps the only thing that has remained unchanged is that the Kim family is still as firmly in power as before.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 6
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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