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Kim Jong-nam: Who in North Korea could organise a VX murder?

North Korea’s military and government have several units overseeing security and surveillance

The mysterious killing of Kim Jong-nam has raised questions on who exactly could have orchestrated his murder. North Korea expert Michael Madden sheds light on the various shadowy organisations operating within the state.

Kim Jong-nam had not been in the running for the North Korean leadership for years, so it was a surprise to some when he was killed in such mysterious circumstances.

But now his death has been conclusively linked to the VX nerve agent – and there are North Korean institutions which have the wherewithal to carry out such an attack.

Most experts agree that the presence of VX means that there is likely to be some kind of state connection to this killing.

North Korea has fiercely denied this, holding Malaysia responsible in an angry outburst on state media, but VX is highly unlikely to have been manufactured in Malaysia – much more likely it was brought into Kuala Lumpur in miniscule quantities from another state.

There are several organisations that have the ability to direct the attack, provide personnel and establish the foreign border entry channels as well as supply deadly toxins.

The most elite of them all

The Guard Command is the most exclusive security organisation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). It is tasked with the close protection of leader Kim Jong-un, his family members and core DPRK officials.

It has an estimated 100,000 personnel, recruited from families identified as "politically reliable" or who have close ties to North Korea’s elite families.

It is also the only security organisation which can interact with all other DPRK armed forces and security organisations (which are highly compartmentalised in their communications and control) to fulfil its missions.

Most crucial of all, the Guard Command possesses a cache of chemical weapons.

The ones who monitor North Koreans at home and abroad

The State Security Department (SSD), officially known as the Ministry of State Security, is effectively North Korea’s political police tasked with ensuring that the DPRK’s domestic population remains loyal to the regime and free of "decadent" foreign influence.

It is also engaged in counter-intelligence missions to ensure that North Korean citizens working or living abroad do not defect to other countries or communicate with foreign intelligence agencies.

The unit that trains foreign operatives

The Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB) is the North’s primary military and foreign intelligence agency. It is involved in the collection and analysis of intelligence with a main focus on South Korea and Japan.

It was formed between 2009 and 2010 when much of the North’s intelligence community was consolidated and during that process it absorbed units previously involved in other violent and terrorist activities in foreign countries, such as the 1987 KAL bombing and the attempted assassination of South Korean President Pak Chung-hee.

Critical to the assassination of Kim Jong-nam is that the RGB absorbed the office through which the North recruits and trains foreign nationals to assist with special operations and intelligence collection missions in foreign countries.

The group that spies for North Korea’s leader

The Third Floor might seem an obscure name but it is genuinely the label applied to a series of North Korean government networks involved in collecting intelligence, conducting discreet surveillance, purchasing goods, earning money and operating businesses (some legitimate, some illicit) for the top leadership of the DPRK.

The Third Floor has operatives and managers who work for other DPRK government and security organisations, but they all report and take instructions from the office of the leader. They are based in and operate out of dozens of countries around the world.

CCTV footage appears to show the moment Kim Jong-nam is attacked

The term derives from the location where these personnel originally started their work during the 1970s – the third floor of the Workers Party of Korea Central Committee headquarters in Pyongyang.

Kim Jong-nam is believed to have worked for elements of the group on his father’s behalf.

Ri Jae Nam (an alias) who was present at Kuala Lumpur airport the day of the murder, according to pictures released by the Malaysians, had previously operated in other countries in Asia as a manager in the Third Floor network.

The weapons-makers

The Second Economic Committee (SEC) is responsible for the production and manufacturing of all convention munitions, military equipment and weapons of mass destruction in the DPRK.

The use of VX agents, the overseas location, the joint operations team would point to command and control by the Guard Command as the only organisation that could order or second personnel from the RGB.

It would be able to access North Korean intelligence reports through its own channels and have access to external intelligence networks.

But there are two other critical components: first, the Guard Command is believed to possess VX and other chemical weapons.

Second, and just as critical to operational success, because it interfaces with any North Korean institution or organisation to which it wants access, it can assure absolute secrecy as it reports directly to Kim Jong-un and his closest aides.

With all other North Korean organisations, each stage of the planning of such an attack would be subject to the routine bureaucratic reporting channels – it could run the risk of somebody tipping off a target.

There would also be the pride factor. When Kim Jong-il was still alive, the Guard Command was the premier internal security organisation in the country.

But

While it still has that status by dint of its writ and mission, under Kim Jong-un the Military Security Command, which polices the armed forces, has been vested with greater prestige and political power, carrying out the youthful leader’s purges. It has nearly eclipsed the status of the Guard Command.

The Guard Command’s director, Gen Yun Jong Rin, has been subject to temporary military demotion. He was a personal friend of Kim Jong-un’s uncle Chang Song-thaek – who was executed for treachery in 2013 – and his brother Vice Marshal Chang Song-u.

Chang Song-thaek (far left) and Yun Jong Rin (second from left) are seen here in this 2011 photo with Kim Jong-il (centre) and Kim Jong-un (far right)

Given that senior Guard Command commanders and managers can operate with a wide degree of autonomy and latitude, if they are responsible, it is possible a group such as this could have carried out such a mission without informing Kim Jong-un.

What is clear is that it is very unlikely any possible direct links to the North Korean leader will ever be proven.

Michael Madden is a visiting scholar at the US-Korea Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.