North Korean Clandestine Operations and Southeast Asia: A network through restaurants?

by Melissa Tustin-Gore

On February 13, 2017, Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of North Korea’s leader, was killed in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The assassination was carried out by two young women, one from Vietnam and the other from Indonesia, using VX nerve agent applied to Kim’s eyes. These events have brought up questions regarding the relationship between the Hermit Kingdom and Southeast Asian states, as well as the espionage networks that exist between North Korea and Southeast Asia that allowed for such operation.

North Korea has three intelligence agencies that are widely known about. The Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB) organizes clandestine operations, the State Security Department acts as the secret police, and Bureau 121 is a recently established cyberwarfare agency. These organizations and the departments within them allow North Korea to carry out the missions of its leaders and top officials. Missions include those carried out by Bureau 39, which works to obtain money to finance the North Korean regime through methods including counterfeit currency, drug trade, and international insurance fraud. As a component of these schemes, the North Korean Government runs a chain of restaurants throughout the world called Pyongyang Restaurant, featuring hand-selected North Korean waitresses serving North Korean food, karaoke services, and mysterious secret rooms. Although this chain had long existed in China and former Soviet bloc countries, the North Korean government saw potential in entering Pyongyang into the Southeast Asian market during the early 2000s. These new venues allowed North Korea to increase their network of revenue and money laundering, and could serve as potential recruiting grounds.

Unlike most Western nations, a variety of countries in the global south, including Southeast Asia, have diplomatic relations, and even close ties, with the North Korean government. In Indonesia, these ties date back to Sukarno’s presidency and the non-aligned movement formed in 1955, during the Bandung Conference in Indonesia. Kim Il-sung made official state visits to Indonesia, including a visit to the Bogor Botanical Gardens when Sukarno named an orchid after Kim. The Kimilsungia has since become a propaganda tool in North Korea. Like Indonesia, Malaysia also maintains official relations with North Korea, including reciprocal embassies. Moreover, North Korea relies on Malaysia for crude oil, rubber, and palm oil, as well as tourists, being that Malaysians are allowed to enter North Korea without a visa and vise versa.  Although North Korean-Vietnamese relations have not been as strong as they once were, North Korea still maintains branches of Pyongyang Restaurant in Hanoi, Da Nang, and Ho Chi Minh City.

Some news outlets have deemed Doan Thi Huong and Siti Aisyah as expendable assets to be cast off after the operation’s success. Although Huong and Siti originated in different countries, their stories have much in common. Both women grew up in humble farming villages, moved to the capital of their respective countries and for increased access to economic opportunities, and have not had contact with their family members in over five years. Mostly importantly, they came from countries that hold some degree of contact with North Korea and Pyongyang Restaurant branches. After they were detained, both women asserted innocence, claiming that they thought to be partaking in a TV game show. However, Houng and Siti practiced the protocol for February 13 with North Korean agents in shopping malls around Kualau Lumpur for weeks. The TV show cover may have applied to their practice, but, when it came time for the real event, they weren’t participating in a prank show, but rather an international crime with chemical weapons. 

The assignation of Kim Jong-nam is an important power move for Kim Jung-un’s government, showcasing North Korea’s chemical weapons as well as their capable spy network. This is aligned with North Korea’s recent nuclear demonstrations. The recent events have also inspired investigations into North Korea’s actions within the Southeast Asian states. For example, the Indonesian police discovered that the North Korean RGB has conducted operations in Indonesia for over two decades through textile factories, fake businesses, and its cover restaurant, Pyongyang in Kelapa Gading, Jakarta. Since the assignation, Indonesian officials have stated a desire to end official relations with North Korea.  Although this incident has greatly damaged relations between North Korea and Malaysia, canceling the previous long standing visa-free entry, Prime Minister Najib Razak has stated that Malaysia has no intention to cut diplomatic ties with North Korea. This incident will likely prompt further investigations and could potentially lead to the closure of many branches of the infamous Pyongyang Restaurants.


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