One of China’s key objectives for this week’s meeting between President Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping is the return of two Chinese men in the United States who may have access to some of Beijing’s innermost secrets.
According to U.S. officials, the Chinese president is expected to ask Mr. Obama to facilitate the return to China of businessmen Ling Wancheng and Guo Wengui, both of whom are wanted by Chinese authorities on corruption charges.
Mr. Ling is the younger brother of Ling Jihua, who was director of the Communist Party’s General Office under Mr. Xi’s predecessor, Communist Party chief Hu Jintao. Ling Jihua is being investigated for graft involving large sums of money, and the Chinese believe his brother was part of the scheme. Ling Jihua served as the Chinese equivalent of White House chief of staff.
The younger Mr. Ling lives in Los Angeles and is said by U.S. officials to have brought with him a large cache of classified Chinese government documents. He may be trying to seek political asylum.
Mr. Guo is a millionaire Beijing real-estate developer who has been linked in Chinese news reports to Ma Jian, the former deputy head of the Ministry of State Security, China’s civilian intelligence service. Mr. Ma was purged earlier this year, and he and Mr. Guo are suspected of hatching a plot in 2006 to bring down Beijing’s deputy mayor, Liu Zhihua.
“Both are associated with the upper echelons of the communist leadership,” said a U.S. official familiar with the Chinese interest in having the two men repatriated.
The issue of the turning over the two men was raised during the visit Washington visit of Meng Jianzhu, a senior security official who heads the Communist Party Central Politics and Legal Affairs Committee. Mr. Meng made the extradition request during meetings with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, FBI Director James Comey and national security adviser Susan Rice, the South China Morning Post reported.
The newspaper, quoting sources familiar with the meeting, said the U.S. side was noncommittal and asked for proof of criminal activities. The Chinese said they were building a criminal case against the two men.
During the meeting with Mr. Meng, Ms. Rice informed China about U.S. plans to impose sanctions on China for its role in the Office of Personnel Management network hacking and other cyberattacks.
Other details of the discussion could not be learned. Some speculate a possible deal between Beijing and the Obama administration would involve Chinese promises to curb cyberattacks in exchange for Washington handing over the two men.
Intelligence officials are likely to oppose any return of Mr. Ling because of his access to intelligence on China, a top priority spying target for all U.S. agencies that have very little access or sources within the tightly-closed leadership circles.
Additionally, returning a Chinese source also would discourage other Chinese defectors with access to secrets from coming over to the United States in the future.
Mr. Xi has launched a major anti-corruption drive targeting high-level officials and lower-level Party cadres. Critics say the anti-corruption drive appears directed more at consolidating Mr. Xi’s power than a sincere campaign to end what is considered widespread corruption throughout China’s system.
Asked about the matter, Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr told Inside the Ring: “We will decline to comment on any specific names at this time.”
Mr. Carr said the Justice Department repeatedly has shown that it is willing to pursue Chinese criminals sought by China.
“For these cases to be successful, however, China must provide evidence to the Department of Justice,” he said. “Too often, China has not provided the evidence we have requested. It is not sufficient to simply provide a list of names.”
CYBERATTACKS VS. CYBERSPYING
The Obama administration and the U.S. military are working to define cyberattacks as part of the legal discussion of when it will be appropriate to carry out cyber warfare.
The issue was raised earlier this month during a hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence when James Clapper, director of national intelligence, outlined the difference between cyberespionage and a cyberattack.
“Our working definition of whether it’s an attack or not is, in my characterization of it not being an attack, in that there was no destruction or data — manipulation of data, it was simply stolen,” Mr. Clapper said of the Office of Personnel Management compromise of records on 22 million federal workers. “So that was passive intelligence collection, just as we do.”
By contrast, the North Korea-origin hack against Sony Pictures Entertainment in November was considered a cyberattack because the it included the exfiltration of data and the introduction of damaging malware that erased hard drives.
Other intelligence officials say distinguishing between cyberattacks and espionage is not as clear-cut as Mr. Clapper sought to portray it in his congressional testimony. For example, the Chinese conduct both cyberattacks and cyber reconnaissance simultaneously upon gaining remote unauthorized access to government and private-sector networks.
Once inside systems, China — in addition to large-scale data theft — also implants very difficult to detect software known as “sleeper agent” malware. The undetectable malware communicates with Beijing cyber controllers very infrequently, making it difficult to locate.
The software can be used during a crisis to sabotage or disable vital computer networks. Additionally, the Chinese are believed to have the capability of using deception and disinformation. This would be especially damaging if the malware infected military targeting and navigation systems that could be spoofed to hit friendly targets or to miss intended targets.
NORTH KOREA PREPS MISSILE LAUNCH
U.S. intelligence agencies are monitoring North Korea’s space launch facility for signs of a missile launch, according to U.S. officials.
The North Koreans are expected to conduct a long-range missile test coinciding with the Oct. 10 anniversary of the founding of the communist Worker’s Party of Korea. Recent statements by North Korean media and South Korean officials indicate Pyongyang will fire a long-range missile and portray it as a satellite launch vehicle in order to avoid further international condemnation.
Navy Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that North Korea is the most serious threat he faces in the Asia Pacific.
“I believe that North Korea is the greatest threat that I face in the Pacific as the pacific command commander,” Adm. Harris said.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has nuclear weapons and is seeking the means to militarize the weapons and deliver them to intercontinental ranges, Adm. Harris said.
“And that causes me great concern,” he added.
The State Department has been seeking help from China to pressure North Korea’s government into halting provocations like missile and nuclear tests, with limited success. China has claimed that it has limited control over the Kim regime, despite Beijing providing the majority of energy and other resources to North Korea.
The missile to be tested is expected to be North Korea’s Taepodong-2 multistate missile that U.S. intelligence has assessed is capable of hitting the United States with a small warhead.
In Pyongyang, an official said satellite launch preparations are underway and that a launch is imminent, CNN reported Wednesday.
“In recent weeks we have been making a lot of progress in many different areas,” Hyon Gwang Il, director of scientific development at National Aeronautical Development Association was quoted as saying. “We are updating our satellite launch site in order to carry a better satellite on a more reliable basis. Finally, we have finished the work of perfecting the control system of launching the satellites into outer space. And again we have nearly finished our important work of controlling the satellites which would be launched into orbit.”
North Korean officials denied the launch will be use for missile testing and said the goal is to make their nation a major space power.
State-run North Korean media have issued several recent threats on the use nuclear weapons. Reports from North Korea also have said the regime is improving its nuclear arsenal in both “quality and quantity.”
“If the U.S. and other hostile forces persistently seek their reckless hostile policy toward the DPRK and behave mischievously, the DPRK is fully ready to cope with them with nuclear weapons any time,” the state-run news agency KCNA quoted the director of the Atomic Energy Institute as saying.
DPRK is the acronym for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the formal name for North Korea.
North Korea recently erected a 219-foot launch tower at Tongchang-ri, in the northwestern part of the country.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters Wednesday regarding space launch preparations that “we are aware of North Korean efforts to enhance their deception capabilities.”
“Multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions require North Korea to suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program, re-establish a moratorium on missile launches, stop conducting any launches using ballistic missile technology, and abandon its ballistic missile program in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner,” Capt. Davis said.
“We closely monitor the situation on the Korean Peninsula, and urge North Korea to refrain from irresponsible actions that aggregate tensions, threaten regional peace and security, and violate U.N. Security Council resolutions,” he said.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.