FBI probe may have hinted at mole in North Korea's inner-circle
The FBI began an aggressive but stealthy investigation into a Fox News report on North Korea more than a month after that report's details were publicly announced by Pyongyang, a Tribune-Review investigation shows.
The FBI probe raises questions among intelligence experts about its motivations, suggesting that the Obama administration may have sought to preserve a mole inside North Korea's inner circle.
Bruce Klingner, former chief of the CIA's Korea branch and now a senior research fellow on Korea and Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, said protecting a mole “would be a consideration.” He cautioned, however, against “reading too much” into the timing, noting he didn't know enough specifics about the case.
The story that has fueled a national debate about First Amendment guarantees first appeared on the Fox News website on June 11, 2009. North Korea, the report said, intended to take specific measures to respond to a United Nations resolution about its weapons program.
Journalist James Rosen said U.S. officials were informed only days earlier that the North planned to respond by launching another missile, exploding a new nuclear bomb and processing more plutonium and uranium into warheads.
That would have been an almost unheard-of trove of secrets — if they actually had been secret.
Each of those measures was announced by North Korea's foreign ministry in April 2009 and broadcast by the official North Korean news agency, KCNA. A nuclear test was staged in May 2009.
Though the Fox report contained mostly old news, it did say the information it reported had just arrived from the intelligence community “through sources inside North Korea.”
David Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and a retired special forces colonel, said it would be “extremely hard to get information out of North Korea” from a top-level source: “That would take exceptional tradecraft.”
Maxwell said information about inner-circle intentions would not likely be subject to the enormous ability of the United States to intercept electronic signals, since such information need only be communicated orally.
Bruce Riedel, a security expert for the Brookings Institution, said North Korea “may be the toughest target in the world. Any leak about a reputed source in the North would produce understandable and justified U.S. concern.”
The United States would have attempted to defend that source by at least not drawing attention to it, experts said.
In fact, the United States did not respond publicly to the Fox report at first. Nor did Korean media since, but for the one item, it seemed to contain little new information.
But in the shadows, the United States started an extensive hunt for its own leak, quickly zeroing in on Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, one of more than 90 people with access to the top-secret briefing paper to which Rosen referred. Kim, on loan from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, was working on nuclear proliferation affairs at the State Department.
Though investigators swarmed in on Kim, they did so in a manner to avoid alerting North Korea of their concerns.
Records show investigators searched Kim's computer at the end of August 2010. Phone records were examined and revealed more than 50 calls between Rosen and Kim from May 26, 2009, and July 14, 2009. Agents interviewed Kim in September 2010, and he denied he was Rosen's source.
They didn't interview him again for six months, at which time he allegedly said he may have inadvertently been Rosen's source, confirming what the reporter already knew.
Still, there was no public disclosure of any of this. The Fox report appeared to have been long forgotten.
But two months later, a sudden, top-level leadership change occurred in North Korea, and soon U.S. officials showed their hand.
On May 15, 2010, the North said Vice Minister of the People's Armed Forces Kim Il-chol — one of the closest confidants of then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il — was dismissed from all posts.
Three days later, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il called an unscheduled meeting of the parliament. A South Korean official declared: “It is extremely rare for North Korea's parliament to convene twice a year and is a sign that an urgent matter has come up.”
What that matter was remains unknown.
What is clear is that the quiet U.S. leak probe next took steps that would disclose everything to North Korea.
On May 28, 2010, the United States subpoenaed under seal Rosen's Gmail account records for any communications with Stephen Kim.
In August 2010, the Justice Department announced an indictment of Kim for releasing top secret intelligence to a “reporter for a national news organization.”
Rosen was almost immediately identified, and media protests began.
The Justice Department said it informed Fox and Rosen of the Gmail subpoena. This fact went unreported for two years and, when it was, it helped fire a media storm.
The indictment stated that there was indeed a top-secret intelligence report that had been seen by Stephen Kim and others in “restricted dissemination.” With that phrase, the Justice Department was acknowledging that the CIA once believed it had a source in Pyongyang with access to the leadership.
On Dec. 17, 2011, Kim Jong-il died. If the CIA source was still active, he appears to have remained silent. The United States said it did not learn of the dictator's death for 51 hours.
Days later, North Korea's new leader, Kim's youngest son, Kim Jong-un, ordered Kim Il-chol executed, according to several media sources. The former general was led to a pre-tested execution spot and hit with a mortar round, according to the London Telegraph and South Korean media accounts. The young new leader allegedly told soldiers that “no trace of him be left behind, down to his hair.”
Maxwell, the Georgetown expert, said the spy world is complicated, and the source the United States thought it had in North Korea might have been a double agent.
Denny Roy of the East-West Center in Hawaii said it would be almost impossible to penetrate North Korea's inner circle. If, however, Kim Il-chol was executed in a “particularly humiliating way,” that could indicate a grave transgression. However, Roy emphasized that he did not have independent knowledge that the mortar incident happened.
Lou Kilzer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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