North Korea: guerrilla and gangster state

Assassinations, bombings and kidnappings are the modus operandi of Pyongyang

Daniel Fazio

PHOTO: North Korean Central News Agency

International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia

27 March 2017

The region may be worried about North Korea’s latest missile test, but it’s the hermit kingdom’s clandestine operations that should be a greater cause for concern, Daniel Fazio writes.

The latest round of North Korean missile launches represents yet another of countless provocative acts that have been a hallmark of the regime’s historical behaviour. The missile launches have again resulted in predictable expressions of international condemnation and outrage.

However, this international outrage deflects attention from North Korea’s clandestine capabilities which are the only effective and more likely means the regime has to target its perceived opponents. Despite their bombast, the North Koreans are unlikely to target anyone with missiles because the inevitable retaliation risks the regime’s destruction.

Without in any way underplaying the regional threat and destabilisation caused by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, Pyongyang’s perceived threat is infinitely greater than its actual threat.

Rather, the 13 February assassination of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia, very likely carried out by North Korean operatives, is much more indicative of Pyongyang’s method of striking opponents by clandestine means. Although it has not been conclusively proven the North Koreans assassinated Kim, the circumstantial evidence of their responsibility is strong.

More on this: China’s delicate North Korea balancing act

Adrian Buzo, an Australian diplomat and North Korea analyst, labelled the regime the ‘guerrilla dynasty.’ Indeed, the regime specialises in small-scale infiltration and hit and run operations. These tactics enable Pyongyang to strike and try to undermine stronger opponents by deploying clandestine means rather than conventional confrontation which the regime cannot sustain. The regime strikes small targets, individuals and groups, rather than cities or nations. This guerrilla mentality which shaped the Korean communist resistance against the Japanese occupation, 1910-45, became an integral part of the nucleus of the Pyongyang regime.

Since 1945, Pyongyang has carried out assassinations, bombings and kidnappings against perceived threats to the regime, mostly targeted at its historic arch nemeses, South Korea and Japan.

From 1945-1950 Korean communists engaged in a guerrilla campaign to try and overthrow the American-sponsored South Korean regime and unify the peninsula under communist rule. South Korea was saved from communist occupation by the UN/US intervention in the Korean War, 1950-53, during which the communist insurgency in the south was brutally pacified.

In January 1968, North Korean commandos managed to reach the Blue House compound (the residence of the ROK president) but South Korean police thwarted their attempt to assassinate President Park Chung-hee, the father of the now-impeached, Park Geun-hye.

In October 1983, North Korean agents detonated a bomb in Rangoon killing seven senior South Korean government officials including four Cabinet ministers who were there on a state visit. The North Koreans narrowly missed their intended target, President Chun Doo-hwan, because he was late for the ceremonial start to the visit.

In November 1987, two North Korean operatives planted a bomb which blew up Korean Air Lines (KAL) 858, killing all 115 people on board, in an attempt to undermine international confidence in South Korea as it prepared to host the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.

During the 1970s and early 80s, North Korean commandos kidnapped an unknown number (estimates range from dozens to hundreds) of Japanese citizens to indoctrinate and train them to spy for the regime. The indoctrination attempts failed but the captives were then forced to train North Korean agents to pass as Japanese so they could be infiltrated overseas. Kim Hyon-hui, one of the agents who blew up KAL 858, received Japanese language lessons from one of these Japanese captives.

These are some examples of the Pyongyang regime’s history of resorting to guerrilla, gangster, or terrorist actions against South Korea and Japan. Seen in this historical context, the assassination of Kim Jong-nam is not an isolated act.

More on this: Kim Jong-nam is far from the first political exile to be killed in Malaysia

Kim Jong-nam, the son of Kim Jong-il, was never going to pose a threat to Pyongyang but his criticisms of the regime and his half-brother Kim Jong-un, made him a prime target. Living in exile, Kim Jong-nam was beyond Pyongyang’s control but, as it turned out, not its reach.

North Korea, of course, has denied any involvement in Kim Jong-nam’s death. Pyongyang has demanded Kim’s body be returned to them, while at the same time attempting to cast doubt on his identity. The regime has announced it will refute the findings of the Malaysian investigation before knowing the outcome – or perhaps it already does!

Not surprisingly, Kim’s assassination has increased tensions between North Korea and Malaysia. Malaysia has expelled the North Korean ambassador and recalled its own ambassador. Malaysia has also locked down the North Korean embassy to prevent two North Koreans wanted for questioning over Kim’s murder from escaping the country.

Pyongyang has retaliated by preventing Malaysian officials from leaving North Korea, supposedly to protect North Korean citizens in Malaysia. In effect, the regime is threatening to hold these officials as hostages to blackmail Malaysia into releasing Kim’s body and weakening the wider investigation into his death.

North Korea’s denials of involvement in Kim Jong-nam’s death will likely be to no avail. Similar to the investigations in the aftermath of the Rangoon and KAL 858 bombings, the Malaysian investigation into Kim’s death will expose Pyongyang’s responsibility.

The provocative North Korean missile launches have received international condemnation and especially annoyed South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the US. But perhaps they were also a convenient way for Pyongyang to distract the world from focusing on North Korea’s clandestine capability in the wake of Kim Jong-nam’s assassination.

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