If Pyongyang has an equivalent to the late Richard Helms, the Nixon era director of central intelligence who kept the secrets on Vietnam and Iran, that would be Kim Yong-chol, a four-star general and Kim Jong-un confidante. Kim, a former bodyguard of late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, is now the director of the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB). The RGB is North Korea’s nerve center for intelligence gathering and such clandestine operations as the recent hacking of Sony by the so-called “Guardians of Peace.”
General Kim Yong-chol was identified as being “responsible for overseeing the attack against Sony,” in a January 18th report in the New York Times, by none other than General James R. Clapper, Jr., the U.S.’s current director of national intelligence. General Clapper met Kim Yong-chol over a 12-course dinner held in Pyongyang in November while he was on a secret mission to secure the release of two imprisoned U.S. citizens. (Pyongyang sent General Clapper a bill for the meal.)
The RGB reportedly has oversight of Bureau 121, Pyongyang’s cyber warfare agency. CNN reported on December 19th that Bureau 121 is “made up of at least 1,800 cyber warriors scattered around the world.” The New York Times added that these “warriors” were “dispatched for two years of training in China and Russia.” Interestingly enough, one of Bureau 121’s major clandestine offices is reportedly located inside the Chilbosan Hotel in Shenyang, a city in northeast China not far from the North Korean border. This raises interesting questions about Beijing’s knowledge of -- and even support for -- North Korean cyber warfare operations. It seems highly unlikely that such a major intelligence operation could be conducted by a foreign power on Chinese soil without Chinese official awareness. Indeed, it also seems plausible that Beijing’s computer experts have provided training to those North Korean hackers reportedly involved in the Sony attack.
That wouldn’t be surprising: Beijing has its own past controversy with reported cyber attacks, including one mentioned at a 2008 Capitol Hill press conference by then-Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf. Congressman Wolf charged that four computers in his office and two in the offices of New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith, containing “information on dissidents from around the world,” including China, “had been hacked by sources apparently working out of China.”
So just who is this mysterious General Kim Yong-chol, the man who sits at the center of an intricate spider web of North Korean intelligence operations? According to an April 18, 2013 posting on North Korea Leadership Watch, General Kim is a member of North Korea’s powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) and a member of the Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee. He has reportedly accompanied North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on a number of spot inspections and to military training exercises. Like many North Korean leaders, General Kim has had his ups and downs inside Pyongyang’s palace politics, reportedly being temporarily demoted in 2012 before being restored to his current position. Kim also has alleged ties to North Korea’s 180,000-strong special operations forces designed to wage “asymmetric warfare” against South Korea.
According to a March 6, 2013, Reuters report, General Kim is “believed to have masterminded” the torpedoing of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan in March 2010, which killed 46 South Korean sailors. He also supposedly “had a hand” in the shelling of a South Korean island later that year, resulting in the deaths of two South Korean civilians and two marines. Finally, Kim’s nefarious activities reportedly include “the hacking of a South Korean bank.”