A month ago, North Korea announced it had discovered and countered a plot by the CIA and South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) to assassinate Kim Jong-un. The general reaction to the North’s declaration, as well as to its follow-up press conferences in friendly countries, was largely dismissive. In general, western observers and media dismissed the reported plot as a fabrication by the North designed to shift attention off of investigations into the killing of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, in Malaysia earlier this year.
It is difficult to independently corroborate the North’s claim, not least because of the dearth of information sharing from North Korea and its history of exaggeration and propaganda. However, there are aspects of the story that deserve a second look. If Pyongyang truly believes there is a plot afoot to assassinate Kim Jong-un, then this will shape North Korea’s behavior and actions. With the near-daily drumbeat of war from both sides of the Pacific, it is all the more vital to grasp just how the North’s government views its position and options, and how that may impact the US calculus in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
On May 5, North Korean state media released a statement from the Ministry of State Security (MSS) laying out their investigation into the reported assassination attempt. The English language release is filled with the typical complexities of North Korean translations, and the often awkward turns of phrases and propagandistic jingoisms. But peeling through that, the core of the alleged plot becomes clearer.
According to the MSS report, a North Korean citizen working in the timber sector in Russia’s Khabarovsk region was recruited by South Korean NIS agents in June 2014, apparently as a long-term agent. Sometime between 2014 and early 2016, the agent, surnamed Kim, returned to North Korea and took up residence in Pyongyang, having allegedly been given money and a satellite communications device by the NIS. On at least three occasions in 2016, the North claims the NIS contacted Kim via satellite communications to discuss the collection of intelligence on key events, and to discuss various methods for carrying out an assassination of Kim Jong-un.
It is difficult to independently corroborate the North’s claim, not least because of the dearth of information sharing from North Korea and its history of exaggeration and propaganda
On at least two occasions in early 2016, they say Kim also traveled to the Chinese city of Dandong, on the North Korean border, and met with an NIS handler and an individual with a Chinese name who operated out of Qingdao. By November 2016, the tempo and tone of conversation changed. The statement claims Kim was urged to recruit others for the plot, was told what “biochemical substance” would be used in the attack and told to prepare to take imminent action. The plot was discovered and quelled sometime after April 20, 2017, the last noted date offered by the MSS for contact between Kim and the NIS.
In looking at the reported plot, there are several factors that lend at least plausibility to the North Korean report, even if it is nearly impossible to either verify the report or rule out a clever fabrication.
#1 The recruitment location
North Korea has tens of thousands of workers in Khabarovsk and other areas of Russia engaged in the timber industry. Give that this “Kim” returns to Pyongyang and has later access to Dandong, it is likely that he would have been an administrator rather than simply a laborer. In several reports from defectors, there has in the past been at least a modicum of freedom for members of the North Korean labor units in Russia, particularly those of the upper echelons. Several reported encounters with South Korean missionaries, and it is likely South Korean intelligence operates in the area for both the collection of information and the spread of disinformation.
#2 Communications, collection and commerce
In the MSS report, although the exact timeline and actions are a bit muddled, it appears that Kim was engaged in setting up some sort of business in Pyongyang that allowed him to both launder the payments from the NIS and travel to China for contact with Chinese businessmen (in this case the “secret agent” Xu Guanghai, of a company referred to as Qingdao NAZCA Trade Co Ltd). This would provide some logic for Kim to communicate and travel abroad, and to meet with other individuals. It would also reinforce the idea that Kim was more than just a common laborer if he is able to establish this trading business. The claim that the ethnic Chinese agent was from Qingdao is also logical, as the city is the closest major Chinese city to South Korea and hosts thousands of South Korean businesses and workers, making it an easy place for South Korean intelligence to hide a presence in China.
#3 Delayed toxin
The MSS report suggests that the final plot involved some sort of “biochemical” that, when delivered, would not likely lead to either rapid death or rapid identification of an attack. This appears a critical component of the alleged plot. Killing Kim Jong-un in an obvious assassination would almost inevitably lead to either a chaotic collapse situation in North Korea or trigger a war, particularly as there is no clear successor to Kim Jong-un. A slow-acting poison that could give the appearance of a death due to natural causes, overwork, poor diet and stress or some combination would conceivably be easier to manage by the regime, and could lead to a more stable transition to a new collective leadership in the North.
Graphic: China, too, is chafing at North Korea’s nuclear program. https://t.co/EZEb3QdwSs pic.twitter.com/iO6CwVpSNZ
— Stratfor (@Stratfor) October 25, 2016
The attempted recruitment of North Korean agents by the NIS is ongoing. But in the story of Kim, the satellite communications begin in earnest in January, leading to two physical meetings in Dandong in March and April. North Korea carried out its fourth nuclear test in January 2016, which could explain an acceleration of the NIS’s activities to collect information from Pyongyang. In August and September 2016, two additional times the MSS says the NIS contacted Kim via satellite communications, there are matching external events of significance as well. August was the defection of Thae Yong Ho from the North Korean embassy in London and September was North Korea’s fifth nuclear test. It was in November 2016, after Thae had begun speaking about his views on the stability of the North’s regime and the inflexibility of Kim Jong-un on nuclear weapons development, that the NIS allegedly decided that the assassination plot needed to be put into final motion. The communications accelerate through April, during which there were rising expectations of another North Korean nuclear test to coincide with either the “Day of the Sun,” marking Kim Il Sung’s birthday, or Military Foundation Day.
By late 2016, there were growing discussions in South Korea surrounding Thae Yong Ho’s assertions that Kim Jong-un would never give up his nuclear program, and that there were members of a group of North Korean elite who were ready to take over and alter Pyongyang’s international behavior if Kim were removed. Similar discussions spread to Washington and even Beijing, where there was some talk that policy change in North Korea may only be possible through regime change.
A political assassination or pre-emptive strike on North Korea would come at the risk of a retaliatory attack. https://t.co/vH7sJZD12M pic.twitter.com/weazouujpH
— Stratfor (@Stratfor) May 5, 2017
A military option to stop the North’s missile and nuclear programs would likely trigger a broader regional war. Allowing the North to continue its programs unhindered would alter the lance of security in the region and destabilize whatever careful balance currently exists. There are simply no good options for dealing with North Korea. Thus the potential interest in a careful assassination plot, one that was not obvious, could create the space for regime and policy change in the North, avoiding war and the worst-case scenario of a nuclear-armed North Korea triggering a domino effect of nuclear weapons development in Asia.
Such ideas were circulating when, in February 2017, Kim Jong Nam was assassinated, reportedly with a VX-type nerve agent, in Malaysia. There are few reasons for the North to have carried out such an obvious attack in Malaysia in particular unless there was a serious perception of threat to the regime. Malaysia was one of the few places in the world that offered visa-free travel for North Koreans, and it had evolved into a major hub for North Korean business and financial activities which allowed Pyongyang to skirt sanctions. Killing Kim Jong-nam would (and did) significantly undermine access to Malaysia, and effectively shut down financial networks not only there but throughout Southeast Asia.
Kim Jong-nam had purportedly been meeting with US intelligence in Malaysia (though this is unconfirmed) and China had retained contact with Kim Jong-nam, perhaps as a potential replacement for Kim Jong-un at some future point. For years Kim Jong-un had steadily removed or killed those in his own government with ties too close to Beijing, but killing his half-brother at the cost of his financial networks and increased international isolation and condemnation may reflect a very real fear that there was a plot afoot to remove Kim Jong-un and replace him with a transitional and manipulatable Kim Jong-nam. Clear, y the North thought even at that time that the risk of regime removal was high enough to accept the cost associated with removing an easy option for replacement.
How the world is coping with a nuclear #NorthKorea. https://t.co/PLJA1rRG9J pic.twitter.com/7Bmpq3DXpr
— Stratfor (@Stratfor) May 28, 2017
In early April the United States completed its policy review on North Korea and the US accelerated the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system into South Korea in early May. Throughout April the United States also increased its defense posture on and around the Korean Peninsula, and has continued to do so. Were the US and the South Koreans preparing for the assassination of Kim Jong-un, these increases in forces would be prudent measures to take, in case things went poorly. It was in April that the MSS says communications with the would-be assassin plotter Kim accelerated, though apparently he was caught sometime in April or the beginning of May.
Now, if this reads like the plot of some spy novel, it could be that it is merely a clever fiction by the North Koreans. Although Pyongyang announced the case in state media, held press conferences in Beijing, Moscow and Tehran, and called on the South Koreans and United States to turn over any individuals involved, in some ways Pyongyang’s physical behavior hasn’t significantly changed. It could be that the North was aware of a plot months ago, and felt that it had fully rounded up the plotters. Or it could be that the North simply doesn’t believe there was a plot and was using this as information warfare. Or the stepped up cycle of missile testing by the North; the doubling down on threats to the US to accelerate the nuclear and long-range missile testing; and the rejection of South Korean civic group visits to the North could be the initial response by Pyongyang.
There is enough about the story to warrant a second look, even if it ultimately proves partially or completely fabricated. There are discussions in South Korea, the United States and even China about the removal of the Kim family from North Korean leadership as perhaps the least bad of several bad options to deal with the North’s nuclear and missile programs. The North did apparently risk much of its Southeast Asian financial network to kill off a seemingly non-offensive half-brother of Kim Jong-un, who had been rejected by his own father as unfit to lead the North. And if Pyongyang believes the assassination story, then any reassurances that the United States or others are not seeking regime change are rendered moot. That means any room for dialogue is closed. It leaves the options of seeking a North Korean collapse, of military action that could embroil the region in conflict, or of accepting a nuclear-armed “rogue state” with the ability to lob a nuclear weapon at the mainland United States. For many world leaders, none of these are particularly good options.