SEOUL–Convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear arms is “all but impossible” despite the efforts of the international community, one of South Korea’s former top spies has said.

Former top South Korean spy Ra Jong-yil

Speaking last week ahead of Wednesday’s UN Security Council’s vote to further sanction Pyongyang over its recent nuclear and missiles tests, Ra Jong-yil said leader Kim Jong-un would not abandon his greatest asset for staying in power.

“It is not a matter of the security of the state, but a matter of security of the regime,” Ra said in an exclusive interview with Asia Times on Feb. 25. “What I call privatized state power.”

The Security Council unanimously passed the sanctions, widely described as the toughest ever directed at the regime, in response to a Jan. 6 nuclear test and a Feb. 7 rocket launch condemned as a covert missile test. The punitive action requires UN member states to inspect all cargo to and from North Korea within their territory and expands the list of luxury goods banned for the country.

Ra, who was deputy director of the North Korea bureau at the country’s intelligence agency, said that Kim’s weapons programs were intended to bolster the image of a “charismatic leader” as much as to intimidate the rest of the world.

“It was part of this domestic policy as well as a diplomatic move,” said Ra, who also served as a national security advisor to former President Kim Dae-jung.  “That’s the only thing they can show off.”

The former National Intelligence Service official said that Pyongyang’s displays of military might allowed it to portray itself to its people as a rare country that could defy the United States and the rest of the world.

“We are superior and our leader can even threaten America,” Ra said, explaining the regime’s domestic message, “and we are not subject to international pressure.”

North wary of China

Kim Jong-il

Ra, whose new book “The Path Taken by Jang Song-thaek: A Rebellious Outsider” claims that former leader Kim Jong-il never wanted to pass power to his son, also said that the regime was keen to avoid interference by China, widely seen as its closet ally.

“They probably perceive China as more of a threat to the regime than America,” he said.

Ra pointed to the long history of Chinese influence on the Korean Peninsula, which persists today in China’s claims to bits of the Goguryeo Kingdom, which is considered part of ancient Korea on both sides of the 38th Parallel.

In contrast, Ra said, the specter of US aggression gave the regime a reason to exist: “America in a way is a very good scapegoat for North Korea.”

In his new book, Ra claims that Kim Jong-un’s father, who died in 2011, had originally wanted to hand over power to a group of 10 trusted aides but apparently ran out of time and changed his mind.

The book, which is based on some 40 anonymous sources reportedly close to the regime, alleges that Kim hoped the ruling family would become a symbol of the nation rather than its permanent leadership.


Addressing one of the biggest controversies currently embroiling South Korea, Ra threw his voice behind an anti-terror bill just passed by the National Assembly. The law, which the conservative government has cast as necessary to prevent terrorism by North Korea and other enemies, was subjected to the world’s longest filibuster, which ended today after a week. Liberal opposition lawmakers have charged that the law gives unduly broad powers to the NIS, which has been hit by numerous scandals, including an attempt to influence the 2012 presidential election.

“What I am concerned about is if strong sanctions really start biting into the North Korean economy, and Kim Jong-un is really cornered, terrorism could be the last resort,” Ra said.

Despite his national security background, however, Ra poured scorn on the reliability of the NIS and other intelligence agencies. He said 80% of the information from South Korea’s version of the CIA was probably wrong.

“Two professions that have no use: medical doctors and intelligence services. They are of no use when we need them,” Ra said, explaining both were “too late” at decisive moments.

The former advisor to the late President Kim, South Korea’s most influential proponent of rapprochement with North Korea, also addressed the current state of inter-Korean relations.

Park’s hard swing

Park Geun-hye

Last month, current President Park Geun-hye closed Kaesong Industrial Complex, the last significant cooperative project between the sides, in response to Pyongyang’s rocket launch days earlier. From entering office in 2013 with a promise to build trust through collaboration, Park took a hard swing toward isolating the regime. In doing so, she slaughtered what had been a sacred cow to even many traditionally hawkish conservatives.

Ra said he believed President Park’s policy change was a result of her personality and was entirely predictable.

“The one explanation is … the temperament of the incumbent lady president. Her style is like that. Faced with danger or a challenge, the lady’s style is going straight against that (challenge),” Ra said.

“Her tennis is very gentle — she used to play tennis — but her politics are quite fierce.”

Asked whether he supported the new policy direction, Ra was noncommittal.

“Let’s wait and see,” he said.

John Power is a journalist who has reported on North and South Korea since 2010. His work has appeared in outlets including The Daily Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, NK News, Asian Geographic, The Diplomat, The Korea Herald and Narratively, among others.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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