North Korea’s long history of killing overseas

The assassination of Kim Jong-nam this year in Malaysia showed the long arm of Pyongyang’s security services is as shadowy and deadly as ever

April 19, 2017 4:13 PM (UTC+8)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un aims a rifle at the Sporting Bullet Factory in Pyongyang on February 23, 2012. Photo: Reuters /KCNA
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un aims a rifle at the Sporting Bullet Factory in Pyongyang on February 23, 2012. Photo: Reuters /KCNA

When North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport, it was not the first nor the most spectacular of Pyongyang’s targeting of its perceived enemies.

As tensions rise on the Korean peninsula, North Korea’s past use of transnational terror tactics is raising serious questions about how the embattled regime may respond in the event of a US attack on its weapons or nuclear facilities.

North Korea’s overseas terrorism, including in Southeast Asia, have historically been big bang events. In 1983, a bombing in Myanmar’s then capital Yangon killed 18 high-ranking South Korean officials and three Myanmar citizens.

As with the poisonous nerve agent attack on Kim Jong-nam, the North Koreans have been careful to cover their tracks behind layers of hired assassins, making it difficult for investigators to prove from exactly where the murderous orders originated.

North Korean suspect in Kim Jong Nam murder, Ri Jong Chol, leaves a Sepang police station to be deported, in Malaysia March 3, 2017, in this photo taken by Kyodo. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via Reuters.
Shadowy: Ri Jong-chol, a North Korean suspect in the Kim Jong-nam murder, leaves a Malaysian police station to be deported on March 3, 2017. Photo Kyodo/via Reuters.

In April this year, the South Korea declassified more than 230,000 pages of foreign ministry documents that shone light on past North Korean terrorism. One document indicates that the Myanmar daughter of the judge who sentenced the two North Korean agents caught in the wake of the Yangon bombing had died a “suspicious death” in Tokyo in 1986.

The documents show that South Korea’s then ambassador in Switzerland, Lee Sang-ok, met with his Myanmar counterpart Thein Tun over lunch to enquire about the death of the Myanmar woman. According to Lee, suicide was ruled out as a motive and cigarette butts of North Korean origin were allegedly found at the place where she was mysteriously killed.

Myanmar broke off bilateral relations with North Korea in the wake of the bombing. After more than a decade of secret connections and collaboration – including North Korean assistance in building underground bunkers and defense installations and a still ongoing missile program – diplomatic ties were restored between the two countries were restored in 2007.

Kim Jong Nam arrives at Beijing airport in China on February 11, 2007. Photo: Kyodo/via Reuters
Targeted: Kim Jong-nam arrives at Beijing airport in China on February 11, 2007. Photo: Kyodo/via Reuters

A similarly mysterious death in which North Koreans were believed to be involved occurred in October 1996, when Choi Duck-keun, South Korea’s then arts and culture consul in the Russian eastern port city of Vladivostok, was found dead in his apartment’s stairwell.

While the official cause of death was bludgeoning, the reported discovery of two pencil-sized insertions on Choi’s torso led to speculation that he had been poisoned — with the finger pointing at his political rivals at the North Korean consulate in nearby Nakhodka. It is unlikely that robbery was the motive since he was found with US$1,200 in cash still in his pocket.

The murder shocked Vladivostok’s diplomatic community, but no suspects were arrested. North Korean envoys in Nakhodka vehemently denied any involvement in the killing. Not many were convinced, however, as is turned out that its embassy’s “arts and culture consul” was a cover for intelligence work.

South Korean envoys had apparently probed into North Korea’s involvement in printing counterfeit money, including US bank notes, and drug trafficking activities between the Russian Far East and Korean peninsula.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (front L) and his son Kim Jong-un (R) talk as they visit Mokran Video Company in Pyongyang in this undated picture released by the North's official KCNA news agency September 11, 2011. KCNA did not state precisely when the picture was taken. North Korean heir apparent Kim Jong-un's slicked-back, high-sided haircut is a fashion hit in Pyongyang where young men are apparently queueing up for a similar cut. Kim, believed to be in his late 20s and known as the "Young General," is packaged to look like his late grandfather, the secretive state's founder, Kim Il-sung. The chubby youngest son of the current leader, Kim Jong-il, slicks his hair back at the top, and has it trimmed to the scalp to about an inch above the ears. To match story KOREA-NORTH/HAIRCUT REUTERS/KCNA/Files (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS PROFILE SOCIETY) THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS - RTR2V7PM
Family tradition: Former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (front L) and his now ruling son Kim Jong-un (R) in an undated file photo. Photo: Reuters via KCNA.

In 1997, a third overseas assassination was tied to North Korea when Lee Il-nam, a defector from the north was gunned down in a suburb of the South Korean capital Seoul. Lee Il-nam, who lived in the West before settling in South Korea, was not just another escapee from North Korean deprivation and repression.

The year before he was killed, his mother Song Hye-rang, the sister of Song Hye-rim, one of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s mistresses and the mother of Kim Jong-nam, had defected to the West in Geneva. Song Hye-rim supposedly died in exile in Moscow in May 2002; Song Hye-rang, meanwhile, now lives at an undisclosed location in Europe.

Her daughter — the sister of the man who was shot near Seoul in 1997 — defected along with her in 1996 and is believed to be living somewhere in Southeast Asia under an assumed name to protect her identity.

The killing of Kim Jong-nam has shown that the long arm of North Korea’s security services is as shadowy and deadly as it has always been. With escalating tensions on and around the Korean peninsula, it seems likely that any attack on North Korea at home could be retaliated against through killer operations overseas.

Bertil Lintner has reported on North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction for Jane’s Defense, the Far Eastern Economic Review and Wall Street Journal, and is the author of Dear Leader, Great Leader: Demystifying North Korea under the Kim Clan