Return to

Jan. 26, 2017
Notes from the Pentagon

North Korea sends spies overseas to prevent defections, extend reach of human rights abuses
North Korea has deployed more than 300 undercover security officers around the world to spy on government personnel and laborers to prevent them from defecting, according to information provided by a former North Korean security official.

The overseas operatives are engaged in human rights abuses related to their monitoring of activities of North Korean diplomats, government officials and the tens of thousands of laborers who are sent abroad to raise cash for the communist regime of Kim Jong-un.

The North Korean defector disclosed the activities of the Ministry of State Security, the totalitarian state’s spy and security arm, last month, according to an official familiar with the defector’s testimony.

The defector revealed that MSS operatives are engaged in human rights abuses such as extorting money from overseas North Koreans, kidnappings, beatings and torture.

In one case, a North Korean student in France identified only as “Han” attempted to defect in November 2014 after his family was purged by the Kim regime. Before he could defect, the student was abducted by MSS agents and was about to be forcibly sent back to North Korea when he managed to escape.

Another case in Europe two years ago involved MSS agents who tried to forcibly repatriate the child of a North Korean diplomat. That bid also failed. Many other North Koreans, however, have been sent to die in prison labor camps.

Most of the MSS agents abroad operate under diplomatic cover in embassies and U.N. posts. About 100 MSS agents are devoted to monitoring the more than 50,000 North Koreans working overseas, mainly in construction sites in China, Russia, the Middle East and Africa.

The export of workers has increased under the Kim regime in a bid to gain hard currency. The number of MSS agents posted overseas also has increased in recent years as more North Koreans have begun defecting.

North Koreans working abroad were subjected to extortion of their wages, beatings, forced repatriation and punishment for contacts with foreigners.

A North Korean construction worker in Qatar told the South Korean newspaper Dong A Ilbo last month that workers are starved while being forced to engage in labor-intensive construction work for three-year stints.

The MSS also routinely extorts a major portion of North Korean workers’ paychecks, which can range from $150 per month to $1,000. Workers’ death benefits also are extorted by the agents.

Details about the rights abuses by MSS agents come after the U.S. government this month imposed more sanctions on Pyongyang for human rights abuses. The Treasury Department slapped sanctions on seven North Koreans and two agencies Jan. 11, including MSS Director Kim Won-hong.

“The MSS engages in torture and inhumane treatment of detainees during interrogation and in the country’s network of political prison camps,” the Treasury Department stated in announcing the sanctions. “This inhumane treatment includes beatings, forced starvation, sexual assault, forced abortions, and infanticide,” the department added, noting that Mr. Kim directs the rights abuses of the MSS.

The action coincided with the release of a State Department report on human rights that identified North Korea as among the world’s most egregious violators of human rights.

The State Department also said North Korea “continues to commit extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest and detention, forced labor, and torture.”

“The North Korean regime not only engages in severe human rights abuses, but it also implements rigid censorship policies and conceals its inhumane and oppressive behavior,” said John E. Smith, acting director of the Treasury’s office of foreign assets control. The sanctions expose “individuals supporting the North Korean regime and underscores the U.S. government’s commitment to promoting accountability for serious human rights abuses and censorship in North Korea.”

The unilateral U.S. sanctions so far have not been matched by United Nations sanctions. The U.N. Security Council in November urged member states to reduce North Korean diplomatic staff in their countries, and said Pyongyang should take steps to alleviate human rights abuses.

Despite growing cyberthreats from China, Russia, North Korea and others, the Obama administration’s policies failed to improve U.S. cybersecurity, according to a report made public Wednesday by the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Although the Barack Obama administration signaled early that it intended to make cybersecurity a priority, the strategic situation has not significantly improved despite the White House’s efforts,” according to the report by Adam Segal, the technology and security analyst at the council.

The report calls on Silicon Valley to work more closely with the federal government in seeking solutions to cyberattacks. Disclosures by renegade former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden have produced “deep mistrust” between the government and the private sector that must be overcome, the report concludes.

Snowden documents revealed that the National Security Agency exploited American companies’ software by inserting malware into products, undermining encryption used by companies and hacking into several companies’ cables carrying data.

“All of these actions damaged the reputation of U.S. technology companies with their users and catalyzed foreign governments to exert more control over transnational data flows,” the report said.

Bridging the divide between government and Silicon Valley is urgently needed to improve cybersecurity, and is a top priority of the Trump administration.

The report also warned that cyberattacks are growing in sophistication and magnitude, costing the U.S. some $500 billion annually.

Ransomware attacks jumped to a staggering 4,000 per day in the first quarter of 2016, four times higher than the daily average in 2015. Health care cyberattacks also increased.

“Foreign governments have grown increasingly able and willing to use cyberattacks for sabotage, espionage and political influence,” said the report, noting power grid attacks in Ukraine and Russian attacks on the Democratic National Committee.

China stole more than 20 million personal records from the Office of Personnel Management, while Iran engaged in large-scale denial-of-service cyberattacks and a cyberattack on a water control dam in New York. The North Koreans carried out the Sony Pictures cyberattack in late 2014.

The majority of the attacks “do not cross into the territory of an armed attack or the use of force,” the report said. “The nature of the threat, however, will change as the internet of things — robots, cars, medical equipment and other machines that communicate over the internet — introduces new vulnerabilities.”

To thwart surveillance, Google, Apple, Yahoo, Microsoft and other companies have stepped up encryption in products and are challenging the government over court access to customer email and personal data, the report said.

The backlash against government surveillance also has led U.S. technology firms to align with anti-intelligence advocates, potentially harming U.S. security efforts.

The split between Silicon Valley and Washington imposed “political costs” that have made it difficult for the United States to cooperate with friends and allies on national security, the report said.

“The Trump administration faces many challenges: rising cybercrime and increasingly sophisticated and aggressive state-sponsored attackers; a growing divide with the technology community; and the reassertion of national sovereignty in cyberspace,” the report said. “These problems are interconnected and will require sustained focus from policymakers as well as high levels of cooperation with the private sector.”

Internal instructions from China’s government call on all propaganda organs and news outlets in China to deal carefully with President Trump and the new U.S. administration.

“For all media, any recent reports about the United States must strictly conform with the central media; any news relating to Chinese-U.S. relations must use Xinhua copy,” states the Jan. 13 government instruction in Chinese leaked to China Digital Times.

“Any news about Trump must be handled carefully; unauthorized criticism of Trump’s words or actions is not allowed.”

China’s leadership is assessing the new U.S. president, who has issued provocative statements touching on Chinese militarization in the South China Sea, U.S. policy toward Taiwan and plans to take a hard line on unfair Chinese trade practices.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

  • Return to