THE murder of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half-brother Jong Nam has put the reclusive regime’s global spy network under an unwelcome spotlight, particularly its clandestine operations in Malaysia, where the cloak-and-dagger assassination took place.
It is believed that more than 1,000 of the hermit kingdom’s citizens currently work and reside in Malaysia – as have many of their compatriots decades before this, although they operated largely under public radar.
But when two women said to be North Korean operatives smeared the highly deadly VX nerve agent on Jong Nam’s face in an outwardly brazen attack last month, the presence of these so-called “spies” immediately became the subject of much scrutiny.
Anthony Davis, a regional security analyst with IHS-Jane, believes the suspicions are valid, saying North Korean spies either from the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB) or other security agencies have been actively operating from the Southeast Asian country.
“Given that North Korean citizens can enter Malaysia without a visa, North Korean intelligence agents have been more active in Malaysia than in any other country in Southeast Asia.
“It has become a sort of regional hub,” Malaysian national news agency Bernama (via Free Malaysia Today) quoted him saying recently.
“Regional and western intelligence services have been well aware of this, and covert operations aimed at discouraging North Korean activities have been undertaken.”
Just a week after Jong Nam was killed, Malaysian newspaper The Star quoted an intelligence source as saying RGB agents were known to be operating in construction, textile factories, and restaurants in major Southeast Asian cities, including Jakarta.
The RGB, tasked with handling North Korea’s clandestine operations, falls under the purview of the North Korean State Security Department or State Security Ministry, which reports directly to Jong Un.
The intelligence agency, The Star‘s source said, relies on various industries to fund its activities, and was in the past even involved in trafficking drugs.
A little over a week later, Reuters ran a report on a military equipment firm called Glocom, which allegedly ran an arms operation out of its address in Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur capital. Glocom, according to a United Nations report drafted for the Security Council, is a RGB-controlled front company that sells battlefield radio equipment in violation of UN sanctions.
Reuters found that Glocom advertises more than 30 radio systems for “military and paramilitary” organisations on its Malaysian website, glocom.com.my. But despite the findings, Malaysia later rejected any suggestion it may have violated sanctions imposed by the UN.
This week on Thursday, Malaysia’s Home Ministry, which oversees the Royal Malaysian Police, told Parliament it does not have information on the number of spies in the country. This is because foreign nations never disclose how many of its intelligence agents operate remotely, the ministry’s explanation said.
But then another report emerged with information from an unnamed source that seemed to disprove that claim.
The source said to be close to Malaysian intelligence agencies was quoted in Bernama (via Channel News Asia) as saying a high number North Korean spies work and reside in Malaysia, and stay under the radar by masquerading behind careers in various fields. This, said the source, is part of an orchestrated effort by North Korea to build an organised intelligence network in the region.
The source added that many work as information technology (IT) specialists in local companies in Cyberjaya, Malaysia’s equivalent of silicon valley, as it provides them access to crucial data.
“These are not ordinary people because they are specially trained before being selected by the regime to work abroad,” the source was quoted as saying.
“While being sponsored by local companies, their presence in Malaysia are not just to work but also (to function) as trained spies.”
These North Korean “expatriates” are believed to be part of a 10,000-strong global spy network, and are seen as valuable assets to the regime. They reportedly send home money and are required to report back to their embassy on a monthly basis and undergo a debriefing.
IT is often the choice sector as the regime has an IT unit known as Bureau 121, which comprises an elite group of well-trained hackers who performed cyber espionage and cyber crime, the source said, referring to an article by Hackread, a Milan-based online news portal.
Apart from the IT industry, North Korean workers are also said to be active in iron ore mining in the eastern Malaysian state of Sarawak, while many of their other compatriots are allegedly business partners to Malaysians.
“They are trying to export Malaysian products to North Korea and vice versa even though they know many quarters are aware of the restrictions imposed by the United Nations on their country,” the source said, adding it was normal for employers channel salaries of North Koreans directly to their embassy, while workers only receive living allowances.
“The embassy usually takes the money out of Malaysia in the form of cash because they cannot make online transactions due to the restrictions by the UN on Pyongyang.
“They will carry bags containing money and get cleared by the airport security while using their diplomatic privileges.”
Jong Nam, who had criticised the regime of his family and his half-brother Jong Un, was killed after two women allegedly smeared the nerve agent across his face at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 (klia2) on Feb 13. North Korea is said to have a massive stockpile of the deadly chemical which has been described by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction.
Malaysia has since charged the two – Siti Aishah, a 25-year-old mother of one from Jakarta, and Doan Thi Huong, 28, from rural northern Vietnam – with Jong Nam’s murder. If convicted, they could be put on death row.
Details of the duo’s involvement in the murder still remain murky as they await their April trial but local authorities have insisted that the two knew exactly what they were doing when they smeared the VX agent on Jong Nam – and expertly avoided contact with the deadly chemical themselves.
Reports have suggested that the two may well have been members of an elite group of female special agents employed by North Korea as spies. North Korea has for over half a century been training young women to kill, maim, coerce, blackmail and have sex with targets through its “honey trap” spy programme.
The female agents, who are selected for their intelligence and beauty, receive up to eight years of training in secret camps in the mountains of North Korea, according to The Mirror.
With the grueling training, the female spies learn to operate weapons and explosives, and are taught to be martial arts experts. They are also trained to ingest cyanide pills if they were to be caught by the enemy alive.
These attractive female operatives have for years been used to blackmail dozens, if not hundreds, of politicians, journalists and businessmen, many who have fallen for the trap, according to an article published by UK’s Telegraph in 2014.
So who were Jong Nam’s killers? Were they really a part of North Korea’s spy network? Are there many more still in Malaysia? If they are, would they try to flee the country?
According to Bernama‘s Malaysian source, however, this may not be so easy.
“All the intelligence services in the region are aware of this and their covert operations are being intensified round-the-clock to monitor the activities by North Korea,” the source said.