How North Korea's Female Spies Are Handpicked And Trained To Kill

North Korea has a long history of using female operatives to carry undercover operations overseas.

  • Cover image via ABC
  • It's like a scene right out of a spy movie. In the middle of an airport, a woman grabbed a man's face from behind as her partner sprayed a type of liquid onto his face. All this happened in mere seconds, unnoticed by the public.

      • Bbc8 Image via AFP
        Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un.
    • Not long after, Kim Jong-nam, 45, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, died on the way to the hospital. He had been attacked while he was waiting for his 10.00am flight to Macau at KLIA2 on Monday, 13 February.

      At the time of writing, both female suspects have been apprehended by Malaysian police. One was found to be carrying a Vietnamese passport when she was arrested yesterday, 15 February, while another woman picked up earlier today, 16 February, had an Indonesian passport.

  • It is believed that the women are part of North Korea's not-so-secret squad of female spies and assassins. In fact, the regime has had a long history of utilising female operatives to carry out undercover operations overseas.

      • B2c9 Image via ABC
        Kim Hyun-hee was flown to Seoul, South Korea heavily bound and gagged.
    • Perhaps the most well-known of them all, former North Korean spy Kim Hyun-hee was arrested in 1987 for planting a bomb in Korean Air Flight 858 en route to Seoul, South Korea from Bangkok, Thailand. The bombing killed all 115 passengers on board.

      Hyun-hee was arrested in Bahrain alongside Kim Seung Il, a legendary spy who posed as her father. Both operatives attempted to poison themselves with cyanide pills. While Seung Il died immediately, Hyun-hee survived. She was later interrogated and extradited to South Korea to stand trial, where she was sentenced to death and later, pardoned for her crimes.

  • Not much is known about the badass ladies, but defectors and former spies certainly provided some insight into the inner workings of the secretive country's female spy network:

  • 1. The regime starts recruiting agents at a very young age, and obviously, you cannot decline once you are "chosen"

      • F336 Image via ABC
        Kim Hyun-hee, pictured as a young girl in training.
    • In a 2013 interview with ABC's 7.30, Kim Hyun-hee revealed that she was recruited for espionage work in the 1970s while was studying at the Pyongyang Foreign Language College. The regime took notice of her because of her sharp intelligence, beauty, and her ability to speak Japanese.

      "One day, a black sedan showed up at my school. They were from the central party and told me I'd been chosen," she said.

      "I wasn't even allowed time to say goodbye to my friends, I was just told to pack. I was given one last night with my family."

  • 2. Recruited individuals are sent to an elite spy training school in remote mountains, where female agents undergo the same tough training as their male counterparts

    • Kim Hyun-hee, who'd spent eight years in the spy training school, said she was given a new name and intensive training in martial arts, weapons, physical fitness, and languages, including three years of Japanese and a stint in Macau to learn Cantonese. South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo wrote that female agents are also required to master Taekwondo to a high level and practice endurance swimming in addition to being trained in assassination, abduction skills, and using explosives.

      In addition, students at the facility were shown propaganda films and trained to use amenities that did not exist in the homeland, such as shopping in supermarkets, using credit cards, and visiting discos.

  • 3. The future spies are not only trained physically, they are also taught "to be ready to die for the Kim regime"

      • 7f5e Image via ifreenk
        The Kim leaders of North Korea, from left: Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un.
    • Kim Dong-shik, a male North Korean agent who claimed to have been recruited in high school, told CNN, "We were taught to be ready to die for the Kim regime and if caught, to make sure we were not taken alive."

      Dong-shik also claimed that his entire family in North Korea has been executed to punish him following his failure to commit suicide after being shot and captured by South Korea in 1995.

      On the other hand, Kim Hyun-hee has had little to no news when it comes to the family she left behind.

      "I once heard a story that a defector saw my family in a concentration camp about 15 years ago," she said. "But to this day I have no idea what happened to my family."

  • 4. Upon graduation, female agents are mainly tasked with "honey trapping" high-ranking foreigners and to carry out assassinations when the mission calls for it

      • 8f0e Image via ABC
        Kim Hyun-hee during her days as a secret agent.
    • Jang Jin-sung, a serial propagandist who served under Kim Jong-il, revealed in his book 'Dear Leader' that attractive female spies were often sent abroad to seduce foreigners, including politicians, businessmen, and journalists. Children born to these women after an overseas mission would also be used to blackmail and extort help from their foreign fathers.

      According to Chosun Ilbo, North Korea has also been using attractive women to steal sensitive data from South Koreans by posing as staff of fictitious companies on Facebook and other platforms on cyberspace.

      In addition, An Chan-Il, a high-profile defector and critic of Pyongyang's one-man rule, said that the regime is increasingly sidelining male agents in favour of their female counterparts when it comes to gathering intelligence and other spy work.

      "Female agents are now being trained to do the killing, using poison. They can easily hide mini poison injectors made of plastic, either in lipsticks, cosmetics or under their clothes," he said, adding that such plastic tools go undetected by airport security.

  • 5. Spies play a big part in maintaining the power and influence of the Kim regime, both within and outside of the country

    • Kang Myong-do, a former member of the elite, said that spies and the human intelligence they provide play a big role in maintaining the Kim regime. Kim Dong-shik agrees.

      "North Korea treats them very well. Spies are treated on the same level as generals, their education is to a similar high level. So it's fair to say North Korea considers spies as very important."

      Kang Myong-do estimated that hundreds of North Korean spies are operating in countries across the world, including the United States, where one of their main purposes is to try to recruit Korean-Americans who are sympathetic towards North Korea.

  • Do you think Kim Jong-nam's murder is the work of North Korea-trained female agents? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

  • Read more on Kim Jong-nam's public assassination here:

  • Once speculated to succeed his father as leader of North Korea, many have not heard of Kim Jong-nam... until now:

  • And how did he manage to enter Malaysia with a fake passport bearing a fake name?

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