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Pyongyang’s intelligence agency in hot water with Jong-un

Mar 02,2017
North Korea’s Ministry of State Security, the equivalent to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, has recently got on the wrong side of leader Kim Jong-un and is struggling to redeem itself, according to multiple government officials in Seoul Wednesday.

The sources, who spoke exclusively with the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, said under the condition of anonymity that the row began late last year, when the ministry arrested a senior official in the leadership of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party. The official, who was questioned for a transgression, was said to have died in the hands of ministry interrogators who tortured him during the probe.

The State Security Ministry gave false reports to Kim Jong-un on what had happened, only to get caught when the Workers’ Party gave opposite accounts. Infuriated he was lied to about government affairs, Kim Jong-un ordered the firing of Minister Kim Won-hong and execution of five deputy minister-level workers.

Lee Byung-ho, director of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, admitted the purge and executions Monday during a closed-door briefing for members of the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee. Participating lawmakers revealed some of Lee’s statements to reporters after the meeting.

Rep. Lee Cheol-woo of the ruling Liberty Korea Party, who heads the Intelligence Committee, said Kim Won-hong has been under house arrest since late January and that a statue of former leader Kim Jong-il was plucked out from the ministry’s compound because Kim Jong-un thought they “were not qualified to serve” his father. Kim Won-hong’s successor is not known.

A senior South Korean government official analyzed that Kim Jong-un could have expected the scenario beforehand and actually masterminded it to flow in that certain direction so that he could get rid of people he deemed as a threat to his ultimate power.

“It’s impossible to arrest and question a senior official in the [Workers’ Party] leadership without Kim Jong-un’s approval or connivance,” the source said.

“It’s very common for people to die in North Korea during questioning. But to have the State Security Ministry punished for killing a suspect whose investigation Kim Jong-un personally consented to, he may have wanted to politically tame both parties without having to get directly involved in the pit fight.”

Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University in Seoul, predicted the State Security Ministry would struggle for some time but will ultimately recover in the future.

BY JEONG YONG-SOO [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]