The Buzz

North Korea's Spy Agencies Should Not Be Underestimated

North Korea maintains an extensive intelligence collection and security apparatus—as might be expected of a totalitarian regime such as the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Pyongyang maintains two main agencies—one focused on external intelligence collection and clandestine operations and another focused on counterintelligence. There are also two smaller organizations dedicated solely to infiltrating South Korea. “North Korean intelligence and security services collect political, military, economic, and technical information through open-source, human intelligence, cyber, and signals intelligence capabilities,” reads a Pentagon report to Congress about Pyongyang’s expected capabilities in 2015. “North Korea’s primary intelligence collection targets remain South Korea, the United States, and Japan.”

North Korea’s primary external intelligence agency is the Reconnaissance General Bureau—which seems to be modeled on the Soviet/Russian GRU military intelligence agency. “The Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB) is North Korea’s primary foreign intelligence service, responsible for collection and clandestine operations,” the Pentagon report reads. “The RGB is comprised of six bureaus with compartmented functions including operations, reconnaissance, technology and cyber, overseas intelligence, interKorean talks, and service support.”

North Korea’s internal security agency—though it might have some foreign intelligence functions too—is the Ministry of State Security. Not coincidentally, it shares the same name as the Soviet Union’s Stalinist-era Ministry of State Security—Ministerstvo Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti in Russian—the MGB. Indeed, the North Korean agency was modeled on the Soviet-era organization.

“The Ministry of State Security (MSS) is North Korea’s primary counterintelligence service and is an autonomous agency of the North Korean government reporting directly to Kim Jong Un,” the Pentagon report states. “The MSS is responsible for operating North Korean prison camps, investigating cases of domestic espionage, repatriating defectors, and conducting overseas counterespionage activities in North Korea’s foreign missions.”

North Korea also maintains two other units specifically designed to infiltrate the South. One is overt, while the other group is covert. “The United Front Department (UFD) overtly attempts to establish pro-North Korean groups in South Korea such as the Korean Asia-Pacific Committee and the Ethnic Reconciliation Council,” the report states. “The UFD is also the primary department involved in managing inter-Korean dialogue and North Korea’s policy toward South Korea.”

The UFD also has a covert counterpart that trains infiltrators and attempts to sow dissent and chaos in the South. “The 225th Bureau is responsible for training agents to infiltrate South Korea and establishing underground political parties focused on fomenting unrest and revolution,” the Pentagon report states.

North Korean intelligence apparatus is one of Pyongyang’s strong suites. Indeed, Pyongyang’s security services have demonstrated their ability to strike far from home as was shown during the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam—elder half-brother to the North Korean despot—in Malaysia. The Kim regime’s intelligence apparatus is ruthless and effective and could be used to good effect during any conflict on the Korean peninsula.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.