Ongoing threats between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. Continued, illicit nuclear testing that sets the world on edge. Secrecy surrounds everything from its leader to its economy. The world has its eye on North Korea, but what are we really seeing?
We rounded up some of the most credible conspiracy theories surrounding the nation. You decide what to believe.
1. The Blue House Raid, an insane assassination plot dubbed ‘so brazen as to be suicidal’
The Blue House Raid (also known in South Korea as the Jan. 21 Incident) marked an unsuccessful assassination attempt by North Korean commandos on the South Korean president, Park Chung-hee. According to The New York Times, the mission was “so brazen as to be suicidal.” Disguised as South Korean soldiers, fighters snuck up on the residence at the Blue House, on Jan. 21, 1968.
The unit approached the Segeomjeong–Jahamun checkpoint late at night, less than 100 meters from the Blue House. A police chief questioned them, but their nervous answers made him suspicious. He drew his pistol, but before he got off a shot, members of the unit started shooting and throwing grenades. Intense fighting ensued, and Police Chief Choi and Assistant Inspector Jung Jong-su died in the ensuing firefight. Before the smoke cleared, more than 92 South Koreans had died, including almost two dozen civilians on a school bus that passed through the line of fire.
Next: The North Koreans used a sneaky tactic to escape punishment.
2. When in doubt, steal a ship?
The next day, the ROK Army’s 6th Corps enacted a wide sweep operation, intending to capture or kill any surviving members of the unit. Soldiers from the 92nd Regiment, 30th Infantry Division captured Kim Shin-Jo, who hid in a civilian’s house near Inwang Mountain. As he told The New York Times, he expected execution. He received a pardon, in part because his gun did not show signs of being fired.
On Jan. 22, 1968, the United Nations Command requested a Military Armistice Commission to discuss the raid. The UNC wanted the meeting on Jan. 23, but the North Koreans asked for a day’s delay. On Jan. 23, North Korea captured the United States Navy’s USS Pueblo. Consequently, the MAC meeting dealt not only with the raid, but also the Pueblo’s capture. As a result, the Pueblo capture diverted attention from the raid.
Next: Film buff Kim Jong Il took his love of the movies to the extreme.
3. The dictator kidnapped a film director, and the world hears his voice for the first time ever
According to The Guardian, movie fan Jong Il kidnapped a South Korean director, Shin Sang-ok and his wife, actor Choi Eun-hee. In 1978, he took them captive to improve his country’s movie industry, according to tapes the pair smuggled out of the country. The dictator, who died in 2011, wanted the couple to show the people of North Korea “a good example through your creative films.” He called the country’s previous efforts “useless.”
Despite chaperones watching his every move during all foreign trips during his captivity, Shin managed to pass recordings on. He gave them to a former friend and film critic during a chance meeting in Budapest, conveying the message that Jong Il was holding him against his will.
The recordings made their way to David Straub, who monitored North Korean intelligence for the US State Department at the time. They marked an unexpected milestone. “It was the first time anyone in the U.S. government, as far as I know, had heard his [Kim’s] voice, besides a couple of words during a public address,” he recalled. The tapes also provided invaluable intelligence, he added. They gave the U.S. “a chance to assess how logical he was, an insight into his temperament. Kim Jong Il was sane and rational in his own way.”
Next: The film directors marked only one of the regime’s kidnappings.
4. North Korea abducts Japanese citizens, and we still don’t know what happened to them
USA Today reported that North Korea abducted at least 17 Japanese people, and possibly many more. Those kidnappings came to light in 2002, when North Korea allowed five to return home. The fate of the others remains unclear. Kidnapped citizens include a schoolgirl who never came home from badminton practice, and couples who appeared to have just up and left.
The 12 who never returned paint a picture of lives interrupted. At least three students studying in Europe appear to have been lured to North Korea by Japanese left-wing radicals. Others got bundled into small boats on the Japanese coast, to cross the water to North Korea.
Next: As it turns out, Japanese citizens do not represent even a fraction of those kidnapped.
5. North Korea kidnaps children to brainwash them into becoming spies
Robert S. Boynton’s new book, “The Invitation-Only Zone,” showed that many, many more victims disappeared. The New York Post reported that North Korea, as part of a government program, kidnapped young people by the thousands. The kidnapped lived for decades in a barbed-wire compound known as the Invitation-Only Zone. There, their captors brainwashed them, so they could later use them as spies.
In the early years, North Korean officials just knocked on doors, taking whoever answered. Boynton wrote that the North probably took 84,000 South Koreans and conscripted 60,000 into the army. By the 1970s, the North Koreans expanded their operations. A Thai woman disappeared in 1978 from Macau. That same year, in Beirut, North Korean operatives kidnapped four Lebanese women. They took people from Eastern and Western Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Officials posit that North Korea abducted at least 4,000 South Koreans since 1953.
Today, Boynton writes, there are at least 500 abductees still being held in North Korea.
Next: You won’t believe what Jong Un did to his own family.
6. Kim Jong Un has his half-brother assassinated in a Malaysian airport
According to CNN, Kim Jong Un ordered his own half-brother assassinated. “The assassination of Kim Jong Nam was an act of systematic terror ordered by Kim Jong Un,” South Korean lawmaker Kim Byung-kee said, in a televised address. “The operation was conducted with two assassination groups and one supporting group.”
Two women accosted Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb. 13, while on his way to board a plane to the Chinese-territory of Macau. He died on his way to the hospital, less than 20 minutes later, according to Malaysian investigators. They later discovered the women attacked him with a VX nerve agent.
The lawmaker said two assassination groups worked separately before meeting in Malaysia, prior to the murder. The first group, composed of North Korean state security department member Ri Jae Nam and foreign ministry worker Ri Ji Hyon, recruited the Vietnamese suspect, Doan Thi Huong. Meanwhile, the second group, state security member, O Jong Gil, and a foreign ministry member, Hong Song Hac, brought on board Indonesian suspect Siti Aisyah.
The two women said they did not know the real plot. Colluders told them it was part of a reality show, and they did not realize Jong Nam would die until it happened.
Next: Famine continues to affect North Korea, and one man’s pets fell victim to it.
7. Giant rabbits probably became food
According to The Telegraph, a rabbit breeder sold 12 of his animals to North Korea for the communist country to start its own breeding program. Their owner fears they became food, instead. Karl Szmolinsky sent the huge rabbits, which grow as big as dogs and produce 15 pounds of meat, to North Korea last year.
Officials told Szmolinsky they went to a zoo in the capital Pyongyang. He planned to travel to the country, to advise them on how to care for and breed the animals. His trip kept getting delayed, and he feared the worst. The North Korean embassy in Berlin insisted his “German grey giant” rabbits were still alive.
“The rabbits aren’t intended to be eaten, they are for breeding purposes,” a spokesman said. Szmolinsky said he doesn’t believe the embassy.
More than 2 million people have died as a result of a famine in North Korea during the mid-1990s. Its citizens were encouraged to breed rabbits for food, and the giant ones would make quite a meal.
Next: These secrets literally went underground.
8. A network of secret invasion tunnels snake along the border
The Daily Star revealed military guards from South Korea discovered at least 84 secret war tunnels between the two countries. The tunnels are wide enough to fit 30,000 special force soldiers and include a railway and sleeping areas for soldiers.
A South Korean border guard said Pyongyang might be building extra tunnels in order to divert people’s attention from these hidden passages. According to the Star, the most recent tunnel found in 1990 ran on the far side of North Korea. Sources believe other tunnels could exist along the entire 250-kilometer border.
Next: This passageway actually has a name, and a new purpose.
9. A secret tunnel that could move 30,000 troops in an hour becomes a tourist attraction
Travel site Atlas Obscura reported on another secret tunnel running between North and South Korea. Called the Third Tunnel of Aggression, North Korea built it in the 1970s. South Korea discovered it in 1978. As far as anyone knows, the Third Tunnel of Aggression aptly marks the third tunnel found by the South. The nation has unearthed a total of four, but they suspect dozens more. At the time of its discovery, the United Nations estimated the North could move 30,000 men per hour through the tunnel to the Southern side.
After initially denying its existence, the North claimed that the Third Tunnel served as a coal mine. To keep up the ruse, officials rubbed black coal dust on the walls. Today, brave tourists can walk a full 265 meters until hitting the divider that allegedly protects individuals from attacks by the North. There, barbed wire and machine gun nests lie in wait.
Next: How does North Korea pay for its missiles? Here’s one idea.
10. North Korea prints nearly undetectable fake U.S. currency to fund its nuclear program
In 2009, the U.S. convicted Chen Chiang Liu of conspiracy and fraud for fabricating U.S. currency so sophisticated, it even fooled Las Vegas anti-counterfeit securities. According to Vanity Fair, Liu acted as part of a vast criminal enterprise believed to be controlled by the North Korean state. North Korea set up the syndicate to finance its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
A secret North Korean government coordinates the entire operation, according to intelligence analysts. The dictator runs its head office, known as Office 39. Until a few years ago, American law enforcement had its eye on Office 39. It started gradually shutting off the sources of illegal hard currency, but the George W. Bush administration shut down the effort.
An umbilical link exists between Liu’s counterfeit bills and North Korea’s missiles and nuclear weapons. “More than 70% of the missiles’ components are imported from overseas,” said Syung Je Park. The director of the Asia Strategy Institute, a think tank affiliated with South Korea’s military, debriefed more than 1,000 North Korean defectors. “They need money,” said Park. “Where else can they get it?”
Next: How does the money circulate?
11. A kidnapped cinephile uncovers the counterfeiting operation
The South Korean movie star Choe Eun Hee first reported that the dictator’s screenwriters might find suitable movie material in Office 39. Park said that Office 39 manages the dictator’s multi-billion-dollar personal bank accounts in Switzerland and other private banking spots around the world. It also works closely with other areas, like Office 99, which raises funds by selling the missiles and other weapons. Office 35 focuses on trying to damage South Korea. Office 39, however, holds all the power. Park told Vanity Fair, “If Office 99 makes a profit, it all gets handed over to Office 39.
Since 1990, North Korea’s accumulated legitimate trade deficit reached well over $10 billion, increasing by around $1.2 billion a year. The country has been unable to borrow money on international markets since the 1970s. Nevertheless, it acquires enough hard currency to import not only military components but also the goods that fuel the “palace economy” of the ruling body. Office 39 fills the gap between North Korea’s hard-currency needs and its means. Experts estimate it brings in between $500 million to $1 billion a year or more.
Next: One source of that money makes its way into the U.S.
12. North Korea counterfeits U.S. supernotes, many of which are still in circulation today
Since 1996, the U.S. has attempted to outwit counterfeiters like Liu by twice changing the design of $100 bills. Fake supernotes circulate in countries throughout Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Now, as the Liu case indicates, substantial quantities exist inside the United States.
Klaus Bender, an authority on banknote printing, wrote in his book Moneymakers that unlike other forgeries, these use paper with long, parallel fibers. The uniquely American design gets manufactured by a machine called a Fourdrinier. A total of 75% American cotton and 25% linen compose the bills. Like genuine bills, modern supernotes use “optically variable ink,” which changes color from bronze green to black depending on the angle of the light.
Bender said their quality suggests North Korea doesn’t make them at all, but that the CIA does, somewhere in America. No evidence exists to support that, however. According Park, in 2007, North Korea bought a huge amount of the special Fourdrinier paper — “enough to print $2 billion.”
Most recently, a supernote seizure came to court in July 2008, when Mei Ling Chen acquired a parcel of supposedly dried seafood mailed from Taiwan to California. Opened in a random search by customs at San Francisco airport, it contained notes with a face value of $380,000.
Secret Service agents inserted a tracking device and let Chen receive the package. When they arrested her, she said she already spent thousands of counterfeit dollars carried into the country a week earlier. The counterfeiter purchased goods from Louis Vuitton, Footlocker, and other stores. The Secret Service said this may serve as a way to launder the counterfeit money.
Next: North Korea counterfeits more than just money.
13. Funding for North Korea’s nuclear program comes from the heroin trade in Japan
In response to U.S.-generated intelligence, the Australian Navy in 2003 boarded and seized the Pong Su. The North Korean vessel carried 150 kilograms of pure heroin, law enforcement discovered. As Vanity Fair noted, North Korea involves itself heavily in drug trafficking, both to its neighbors and farther afield. In 2003, U.S. officials called it the world’s third largest producer of opium, after Afghanistan and Burma. Unclassified Pentagon documents reported how opium becomes converted to heroin at state-owned factories.
China’s narcotics-control commission described North Korea as one of three “golden routes” for heroin supply. They use a Chinese term — “Ku’mdallae” — which holds a deliberate double meaning. The Chinese character “Ku’m” also represents the name Kim Jong Il. Office 39 also organizes the import of ephedrine, the main precursor chemical for making crystal methamphetamine.
It also manufactures and exports the drug. Japanese police believe a large percentage of the meth sold on Japanese streets comes from North Korea. As Park observed, “drug money and counterfeit money go to Office 39. Office 39’s money is directly controlled by [the dictator, whose] first priority is to develop nuclear weapons and missiles.”
Next: North Korea also sells this surprising “commodity.”
14. North Korea literally sells forced laborers to other countries for mining, logging, and more
North Korea also makes money by sending thousands of North Korean workers abroad to toil under forced labor conditions. It sends workers to places like China, Russia, and the Middle East, according to a U.N. report from 2015. These workers supposedly work in industries like mining, logging, textiles, and construction.
Unfortunately for the workers, they must give the North Korean regime most of their earnings. According to reports from the U.N. and other human rights agencies, they often face human rights abuses while working abroad. Those include working up to 20-hour work days, and having hardly any contact with their host country. Because of North Korea’s strong culture of secrecy, many of these workers won’t talk about their abuses.
North Korea also operates a restaurant chain, The Global News reported. “The people who go abroad would normally come from a very particular caste. Very educated, very pro-Party people who are trained and who would be loyal to the Party during their exposure abroad,” said Park. “You’re looking at a very particular type of people who the regime sends abroad for earning currency.”
Next: This crime also creates a solid revenue stream.
15. Alleged North Korean hackers stole money straight from the New York Federal Reserve
According to CNBC, North Korea reportedly stood behind an $81 million cyber-theft of funds from Bangladesh’s account at the New York Federal Reserve. Prosecutors believe Chinese colluders helped North Korea with the theft, The Wall Street Journal said, citing people familiar with the matter.
CNN also reported that North Korea has involved itself in hacking banks. Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky has linked it to attacks on financial institutions in 18 countries. Kaspersky researchers said the same hacking operation that hit Bangladesh has also been used in countries as far afield as Costa Rica, Poland, and Nigeria.
“You’re looking at a situation where the North Koreans are particularly sophisticated,” said Park. “It’s a big source of revenue going forward.”
Whether independent sources can confirm North Korea’s illicit activities almost lies outside the point. The secretive nation tends to deny claims against it. Its battened-down security means agencies have a hard time proving otherwise, as well. True or false, the conspiracy theories against North Korea provide a glimpse into the country that most of the world sees as an enigma.
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