North Korea sends hit squads after defectors from its secret police

Julian Ryall
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a flight training of Korean People's Army Air Force at undisclosed location, April 16 - REUTERS

North Korea has dispatched teams to neighbouring China to track down and kill, if necessary, as many as seven members of the Ministry of State Security who have fled in a snowballing series of defections, according to dissident media. 

The crisis in the ranks of North Korea’s secret police agency can be traced back to immediately after the failure of the Hanoi summit between Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, and US President Donald Trump in late February, reported the Daily NK, citing reports from its network of undercover “citizen reporters” in North Korea and China. 

In early March, three MSS officials based in the Chinese city of Shenyang concluded that the secret bank accounts that they were using under fake Chinese names had been compromised and they were under surveillance. 

The three men emptied the accounts of “significant amounts of money” that they were reportedly charged with using to procure technology and other items that are banned under United Nations sanctions and disappeared. 

A number of other agents of the MSS - widely considered the most brutal unit in the North and responsible for ensuring that defectors are caught and punished, as well as operating the regime’s network of concentration camps - have also since disappeared in China, according to officials of South Korea’s intelligence agencies. 

North Korea stepped up its search for the men in mid-March after a senior MSS official based in Pyongyang fled with his family through the Chinese border city of Dandong. The official apparently had little choice but to escape out of concern that he would be held responsible for the defections of his subordinates in China. 

The MSS has put together a team from its headquarters in Pyongyang and dispatched it to Liaoning Province, along with agents from the Reconnaissance General Bureau and operatives already in China. 

“The Reconnaissance General Bureau agents were ordered ‘not to return’ until the defectors are caught and the agents should ‘kill them if they can’t be caught’ “, the media outlet quoted one of its sources in Pyongyang as saying. 

The disappearance of officials widely considered to be the trusted elite in North Korean society, along with the defection of a number of diplomats in recent months, hints at growing disaffection with those charged with propping up Mr Kim’s regime.