As a totalitarian police state with an aggressive foreign policy, North Korea has periodically seen the need to practice terror abroad. These include assassinations, bombings and kidnappings for a variety of reasons—some politically motivated and others, in their own way, obscenely practical. Pyongyang’s agents have pulled off some of the most spectacular acts of terror in recent memory, including using a nerve agent as a tool of assassination.
On October 9, 1983, a South Korean delegation that included President Chun Doo-hwan was visiting the mausoleum of Burmese leader Aung San when a remote-controlled bomb detonated above them. The deputy prime minister, minister for foreign affairs and minister of commerce were along seventeen delegation members killed. The wreath laying was a typical gesture for heads of state visiting Burma—a North Korean delegation had performed a similar ceremony less than two months before.
According to the Central Intelligence Agency, three individuals, later identified as Korean People’s Army officers, were later killed in shootouts with Burmese security forces. The three-man team, a size considered typical for North Korean covert operatives, had planted the bomb and were trying to make their way to a North Korean ship, the Tonggon Aeguk-Ho, anchored in Rangoon harbor. A silenced .25-caliber Belgian pistol, daggers, hand grenades, a Morse radio transmitter, a Japanese receiver and medical supplies were among the equipment later recovered.
On November 29, 1987, Korean Airlines Flight 858 was flying from Saddam International Airport in Baghdad to Gimpo International Airport outside Seoul, South Korea, with stopovers in Abu Dhabi and Thailand. On the second leg of its flight, the Boeing 707, filled with South Korean construction workers returning from the Middle East, exploded over the Andaman Sea. All 115 passengers and crew were killed.
Not long after, two individuals were detained in Bahrain when it was discovered the Japanese passports they traveled under were forgeries. The individuals, actually North Korean agents, took cyanide pills when they realized they were being detained. The older, male agent died, but the younger, twenty-five-year-old Kim Hyon-hui, survived. Kim recovered and made a full confession, stating that the pair had been given a time bomb disguised as a transistor radio by other agents in Yugoslavia, and were instructed to place the bomb aboard the aircraft. The two placed the bomb, a timed device consisting of 350 grams of C-4 and a small amount of PLX liquid explosives, in an overhead cabin bin when they boarded in Baghdad. The two exited the plane in Abu Dhabi, where they were detained on false passports.
According to Kim Hyon-hui, Kim Jong-il, the son of President Kim Il-sung (and future leader of North Korea and father of current leader Kim Jong-un), had ordered the bombing to destabilize the South Korean government. The bombing had occurred on the thirty-fourth anniversary of the end of the Korean War. The bombing was also supposed to frighten international athletes away from the 1988 Seoul Olympic games, which North Korea was deeply jealous of.
One of North Korea’s longest-running covert operations was the kidnapping of Japanese citizens. This was done for a number of reasons, including identity theft (the victim, usually older, was quickly killed); the procurement of interpreters and outsiders to teach North Korean agents Japanese language, culture and mannerisms; and even to procure brides for Japanese Red Army agents residing in Pyongyang. The Japanese were typically kidnapped on the western side of Japan, facing North Korea, but there were victims as far away as Denmark and Spain. The Japanese government recognizes seventeen official kidnapping victims, although the true number may reach into the hundreds.
The kidnapping campaign was likely carried out by North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau, which has one unit specifically set up for external operations. Japanese men and women would simply disappear doing ordinary things, typically within earshot of the ocean. Landing parties would kidnap individuals, drug them and then take them out to sea in small boats. From there, the unconscious victims would likely be loaded onto fishing boats or perhaps even submarines for the five hundred mile trip back to Chongjin, North Korea.
North Korea has halted the kidnapping process and returned some abductees, but has not come clean about the entire scope of the operation. The kidnapping campaign is even more perverse in light of the fact that North Korea had plenty of citizens who had recently lived in Japan and who could have easily carried out the tasks given to the abducted, making the whole operation completely unnecessary.
The most recent North Korean covert operation was the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of Pyongyang’s current ruler Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-nam, once considered the favorite of his father Kim Jong-il, fell into disfavor after a failed attempt to travel abroad to visit Tokyo Disneyland. He lived in exile for more than a decade but was killed in March 2017 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia.
Kim was inadvertently killed by two women, one Indonesian and one Vietnamese, who thought they were participating in a television prank. Instead of baby oil, however, they unknowingly contaminated their target with deadly VX nerve agent. Kim complained of illness, collapsed and died a short time later. Four North Koreans were suspected of directing the attack, one an employee of state airline Air Koryo, while another carrying diplomatic status. The agents were apparently carrying out a standing order by President Kim Jong-un for his half-brother’s assassination.
Pyongyang has conducted fewer covert operations in recent years, for reasons unknown. One reason might be that certain political leaders, such as Kim Jong-il, might have felt more emboldened than others. The decline might also be chalked up to an internal realization that North Korea’s political and military isolation make such acts more risky. No longer a client state of the Soviet Union, or even China, North Korea no longer has a patron state to hide behind. North Korea has instead shifted to direct military attacks such as the sinking of the corvette ROKS Cheonan by torpedo and the artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island. Still, as Kim Jong-nam’s assassination proves, the country is still willing to conduct direct—and lethal—covert operations abroad.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009, he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.
Image: South Korean soldier briefs U.S. Army Gen Martin E. Dempsey. DVIDSHUB/Public domain