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Former North Korea Analyst Discusses Country's Intelligence Operation


For more on Kim Yong Chol we turn now to Patrick McEachern. He's a former State Department official. He specialized in analyzing North Korea. He's now with the Wilson Center. Welcome to the program.

PATRICK MCEACHERN: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: We just heard Kim described as a former military intelligence chief. What does that mean? What was his role?

MCEACHERN: Well, he's had a variety of roles over his long career that really sort of showed the varying intelligence roles within the North Korean apparatus. So by the mid-1970s, he was already a commander in the Guard Command of North Korea's Korean People's Army. That's the organization that's charged with protecting Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and finally Kim Jong Un. So at the time, that was protecting Kim Il Sung. Later on, he took on roles as the director of the Korean People's Army General Reconnaissance Bureau, which is basically their military intelligence branch. And then more recently, he's had very senior political roles in both the military and the intelligence and now the sort of diplomatic duty that he's come to New York for.

CORNISH: North Korea is known as the hermit kingdom, right? I've heard it be called the black hole for American spies. What is their intelligence apparatus like?

MCEACHERN: North Korea has a really very formidable intelligence agency with three I would say distinct roles. One is they try to collect information on their own population. And that's probably the most pervasive element of the North Korean intelligence structure. They try to collect foreign intelligence, and they conduct covert operations abroad. So in all of these areas they dedicate very substantial resources to trying to achieve their goals.

CORNISH: What do we know about their covert operations abroad?

MCEACHERN: Well, we know that they have a robust cyberhacking unit. You might recall or your listeners may recall as well the Sony hack back in late 2014 where the North Koreans were able to do a great deal of damage to Sony Studios because of a movie that they didn't like that portrayed their leader in a negative light. We can assume that they can assert their operatives into South Korea quite easily and most likely have a substantial sleeper cell within that country. So they have a lot of abilities to inflict a good bit of damage.

CORNISH: Help us understand how they built up this intelligence apparatus, right? I mean, this is a country where we talk about them having limited broadband network. So what are the resources like?

MCEACHERN: Well, broadly, the resources for their intelligence community is rather deep. Their - they really started to institutionalize their intelligence apparatus in the 1950s after the Korean War where they dedicated a variety of different institutions to not only spying but spying on the spies. It's important to recognize that this is a country of extreme distrust. And Kim Jong Un or Kim Jong Il or Kim Il Sung have all really tried to create competing intelligence institutions to spy on one another.

CORNISH: We're not saying here that Kim Yong Chol is here to spy. But what is the significance of having somebody who has that background involved in this process?

MCEACHERN: I think you're absolutely right that Kim Yong Chol is not here to spy. It perhaps informs the background of his experience. But I think we should look at him less so as the former spy chief and more as a senior politburo member, a member of the Central Military Commission and, most importantly, one of Kim Jong Un's right-hand men that was being sent to Washington with a message from the North Korean leader.

CORNISH: That's Patrick McEachern. He's a former State Department official. He's now at the Wilson Center. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MCEACHERN: Thank you. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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