By Troy Stangarone
Much more is known about North Korea’s efforts to spy on South Korea than on the South’s efforts to spy on the North. One rare peak at those efforts is the recent movie The Spy Gone North, but there may be a more interesting case of South Korean efforts to spy on its neighbor to the North taking place in Austria.
The Spy Gone North, which is based on a true story, is the tale of a South Korean army officer who infiltrates the North by pretending to be a businessman. While on a long-term mission to gain information on North Korea’s nuclear activities at Yongbyon, he ends up being caught up in the mechanizations over efforts to prevent the election of Kim Dae-jung as president in the South.
The efforts to spy on North Korea taking place in Austria are of a different nature and we only know about them as a result of information in an Austrian search warrant. In late February, police raided the main office of Austria’s domestic intelligence agency, known as the BVT. According to the warrant, one of the reasons listed was that BVT officials had worked with South Korean intelligence officials to obtain blank North Korean passports that were being printed in Austria.
As The Washington Post story on the raid notes, that while Kim Jong-un would ostensibly benefit from breaking up any intelligence cooperation between South Korea and Austria to spy on the North, the Austrian BVT’s cooperation with South Korean intelligence was likely included in the warrant to help cover up domestic meddling in Austria’s spy service. It raises troubling implications.
If the information in the warrant is correct and South Korea has been able to obtain blank North Korean passports, why are North Korean passports being printed in Austria? Even before the recent ratcheting up of sanctions on North Korea at the end of the Obama administration and under the Trump administration there were few economic ties between Austria and North Korea. The EU as a whole did $32 million in trade with North Korea in 2015 and that fell to $18 million in 2017. In 2015, Austria did a little over $1 million in trade with North Korea, mostly imports from North Korea. By 2016, the most recent Austrian data available, trade had grown to almost $3 million with exports to North Korea having grown to over $2 million. In contrast to France and Germany, two of the largest economies in the EU, Austria does little trade with North Korea, but interestingly in recent years has done more than the United Kingdom.
With few economic ties with North Korea, it is disconcerting that Austria either intentionally or unintentionally has potentially exposed South Korean intelligence operations. It is unclear why the far-right Freedom Party in Austria, which controls the Interior Ministry and is believed to be behind the raid, would want to help North Korea by potentially exposing South Korean intelligence operations. Even if this is purely part of a ruse to cover up domestic objectives, it should have been clear that the end result would be damaging by including an intelligence operation in the warrant. In doing so, Austria has raised concerns about its ability to keep secrets and credibility as an intelligence partner.
One angle that intelligence analysts will need to explore is whether Russia had any role in the outing a South Korean intelligence operation. The Freedom Party has an official cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia Party, and Putin recently attended the wedding of the Austrian Foreign Minister. Russia has also been one of the countries most willing to evade UN sanctions on North Korea, something which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has recently warned against.
At a time when intelligence on North Korea’s true intentions towards dismantling its nuclear program and pursuing economic reforms could make the difference in the current opening and help the government in Seoul, and by extension Washington, know if increasing engagement will be reciprocated by Pyongyang and is genuine, this damaging leak by an Austrian state prosecutor could be a truly unfortunate intelligence loss.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Jogi Experience’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.