North Korean clandestine activities against Japan



    North Korea targeted Japan after it gained independence through various activities, most of them illegal. These activities range in scope include covert intelligence operations, illegal commercial and economic ventures and missile tests. These operations are done to help prop up the North Korean economy due to economic sanctions, put pressure on Japan and ensure the regime’s survival.

    In response to North Korean clandestine operations, Japanese law enforcement, the Self-Defense Forces and intelligence agencies have ramped up efforts to curtail their activities in Japan. Despite the setbacks, North Korea will likely continue to conduct covert operations and other activities to prop up the North Korean government and economy by targeting Japan directly or indirectly.

    Key Judgement 1

    North Korea is highly likely to conduct illegal commercial and/or economic activities under the North Korean government watch to gain currency for the country’s economy in the next 12 months.

    • Since the end of the Cold War, North Korea amassed a debt of around $4 billion to the Soviet Union [source]. This, in turn, forced Pyongyang to order its diplomats, law enforcement, military and intelligence agencies to commit economic crimes overseas.

    • Japan is a significant country for North Korean clandestine activities due to its colonial past and the presence of a significant ethnic Korean population, some of which are sympathetic to Pyongyang [source]. This mean that they can count on the support of Zainichi Koreans who support the regime by sending monetary donations to Chongryon, the defacto North Korean embassy [source].

    • The arrest of two South Korean nationals in November 2021 for running an illegal business outside of their visa status on behalf of the Reconnaissance General Bureau highlights the fact that Pyongyang is still heavily involved in conducting these types of activities [source].

    Key Judgment 2

    Espionage operations conducted under North Korean supervision is likely to continue to either secure needed technology or to help stabilize the government in the next 12 months.

    • North Korean intelligence agencies has placed Japan as a primary intelligence target, aside from South Korea and the US, on securing political, military and economic intelligence [source].

    • Japan is targeted in espionage operations to acquire Japanese-based technology for its missile programs [source].

    • According to Mitsuhiro Suganuma, the former section head of the Public Security Intelligence Agency’s Second Intelligence Department, Chongryon is still vital for Pyongyang to oversee any Japanese-based operations to either support future operations in South Korea or for operations solely conducted in Japan [source]. Suganuma says that Chongryon does provide assistance from behind the scenes.

    Key Judgement 3

    North Korean-backed hackers are likely to target Japan in the next 12 months.

    • A March 2021 presentation published by the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Sector Cybersecurity Coordination Center reported that APT37, TEMP.Firework and Kimsuky are tasked to conduct hacking operations if and when they involved hacking into Japanese servers [source].

    • North Korea collaborates with organized crime as a means of providing money to the North Korean economy [source]. In 2016, the yakuza group Yamaguchi-gumi collaborated with Pyongyang in an illegal cash-out campaign known as FASTCash [source]. The operation was conducted by using stolen bank data from South Africa with a total of 1.8 billion yen ($16.6 million) accumulated [source].

    Mark Christian Soo
    Mark Christian Soo
    Mark is a graduate of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) under the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) with a Master's Degree in Strategic Studies. His research interests focus on Japanese, East and Southeast Asian defense/foreign affairs policy.

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