- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 4, 2019


Being a diplomat for the world’s most undiplomatic regime must be an odd job. North Korea’s foreign service officers posted in the country’s embassies abroad don’t do much of the feel-good factory tours and rubber chicken dinner hobnobbery that characterize the daily lives of most countries’ ambassadors.

Instead, North Korea’s diplomats are more like mafioso, charged, above all, with bringing in money for the regime. Each North Korean embassy is reportedly ordered to bring in a certain quota of foreign cash — although its embassy in Rome appears more concerned with illegally importing luxury goods for the Kim regime to enjoy while its people suffer.

North Korean diplomats posted to European capitals are often involved in circulating counterfeit cash and black market cigarettes. In Africa, they’ve been busted smuggling rhino horns and ivory. (Oh, to take a peek at a copy of North Korea’s foreign service exam.) The North Korean embassy in Beijing, which takes up an entire city block, even houses dormitories where waitresses at sanctions-busting North Korean-owned restaurants live.

Proponents of restarting engagement between North Korea and the United States have suggested opening diplomatic ties as a step the two sides could take to get what’s inevitably known as “the process” rolling along. To open “liaison offices” — embassies in all but name — is thought of as a relatively modest step, much less drastic than, for instance, lifting sanctions. But given the activities of North Korea’s diplomats, that’s hardly the case. A North Korean embassy in the heart of Washington would inevitably become a locus of espionage and criminality.

Yet recent events in Madrid suggest that opponents of the regime may actually derive some benefit from North Korea’s embassies.

On Feb. 22, 10 intruders made their way into the North Korean embassy in the Spanish capital and conducted an astonishing feat. It’s not clear what exactly transpired in the embassy during the raid (North Korea, not exactly a reliable narrator, says its embassy personnel were tied up and beaten in a “terrorist attack”), but it is clear that by the end of it, the intruders had made off with a trove of electronics, including cellphones and computers. Thae Yong-ho, a high-ranking defector who served in North Korea’s London embassy, speculates that they may have secured a device used for decoding transmissions from Pyongyang. They left for the United States shortly after the raid, where they shared their electronic cache with U.S. officials.

While in the embassy, the intruders also smashed portraits of the regime’s leaders — and filmed themselves doing it. This is a potential watershed, if even a small fraction of the 200,000 or so North Koreans who labor abroad see the video. It’s an act of unthinkable transgression they won’t soon forget.

The group that initiated the raid, Free Joseon, states openly its goal to bring down the Kim regime, which it calls “immoral” and “illegitimate.” (“Joseon” is the name by which the North Korean regime refers to Korea.) Free Joseon also has been involved in protecting Kim Han-sol, the son of Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un’s older brother who was murdered in a Malaysian airport in 2017. He is now rumored to be in the U.S., though his exact whereabouts remain, understandably, a secret.

The Kim dynasty has long viewed its embassies as a key part of the apparatus that keeps the regime going: a node useful for sanctions-busting, money laundering and intelligence gathering. But Free Joseon’s remarkable raid shows that North Korea’s embassies can be risky to the regime, too.

• Ethan Epstein is deputy opinion editor of The Washington Times. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @ethanepstiiiine.

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