The US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has named the North Korean official who he believes to be personally behind the Sony hacks.
Clapper announced at a cybersecurity conference that he suspects North Korean General Kim Yong Chol to have been behind the attack. This is not the first time that Kim, a four-star general in charge of the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), the country’s top intelligence agency, has been specifically singled out by the US.
In August 2010 President Barack Obama specifically sanctioned Kim Yong Chol along with three North Korean government entities — the RGB; the Green Pine Associated Corporation, a subordinate organisation to the RGB associated with arms proliferation; and Office 39, which was involved with narcotics trafficking — through an executive order.
Obama’s sanctions came five months after the sinking of the Cheonon, a South Korean Navy vessel sunk by a North Korean torpedo on March 26, 2010. The incident killed 46 South Korean sailors.
The consensus among US and South Korean policy makers was that the RGB, under the command of Kim, was responsible for the order to sink the Cheonon. Following the attack, former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il promoted Kim Yong Chol, along with two other military officials within the RGB, to North Korea’s Central Military Commission.
The attack on the Cheonon demonstrated Kim Yong Chol’s hawkishness towards South Korea, as well as his willingness to carry out belligerent and highly provocative policies on Pyongyang’s behalf.
Almost immediately after the destruction of the Cheonon, in April 2010, South Korea captured two North Korean agents posing as defectors. Kim Yong Chol had sent the two in order to assassinate Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean defector to date.
Both the attack on the Cheonon and the assassination plot are typical of the general’s willingness to engage in high-stakes moves aimed at North Korea’s southern opponents. Kim Yong Chol was one of the regime’s most trusted high-ranking officials when the late Kim Jong Il was at his most belligerent — as well as his least predictable.
During the succession of Kim Jong Un in late 2011, Kim Yong Chol attempted to ingratiate himself with the new leader. Kim Yong Chol frequently appeared alongside Kim Jong Un during military visits and inspections. These efforts paid off. Kim Yong Chol was made a four-star general in 2012.
This high rank didn’t last long, though. Kim Yong Chol was quickly demoted back the rank of a two-star general during a power struggle following the merging of the intelligence department of the governing Worker’s Party and part of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces into the RGB.
This demotion, according to an unnamed South Korean intelligence source cited by Tom Nichols, a professor at the US Naval War College and a senior associate at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, led to a gunfight in the streets of Pyongyang that
may have escalated into an assassination attempt on Kim Jong Un.
The new leader quickly allied himself to Kim Yong Chol, who was apparently fighting against the faction that attempted the assassination, in an attempt to stay in power. Afterwards, Kim Yong Chol was again promoted to a four-star general, a rank he still holds.
The story of an attempt on Kim Jong Un’s life should be taken with a note of caution due to the inherently closed nature of North Korea and the difficulty of confirming anything happening in Pyongyang.
However, Kim Yong Chol managed to retain his rank and influence following Kim Jong Un’s rise to power. If Kim Jong Un does feel indebted towards the general, it could explain North Korea’s increasingly hawkish moves. Kim Yong Chol, under Kim Jong Un, could have freer rein to operate and carry out his own warlike maneuvers.
At the same time, Kim Yong Chol’s own once-precarious position under Kim Jong Un might make him more willing to carry out more provocative or outlandish plots, like the Sony attack.
Either way, the man the US now believes to be responsible for the Sony breach has a long history of doing Pyongyang’s dirty work.
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