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Wednesday, June 15, 2005


Spying for the Kims — ex-agent tells a bit

Staff writer

OSAKA — A 62-year-old man who lives in Kobe claims he spent a quarter century as a North Korean spy.

News photo
North Korea awarded spy Isao Sakamoto a gold medal (right) and a silver medal. PHOTO COURTESY OF ISAO SAKAMOTO

The man, who goes by the pseudonym "Isao Sakamoto," said his job wasn't glamorous and didn't involve cloak-and-dagger. He merely provided North Korean officials with information publicly available or gleaned through private conversations with Japanese politicians or figures in the mass media.

However, he added that he was proud to be one of a very few Japanese to receive secret-agent training in Pyongyang and to receive medals for his services.

Sakamoto's story begins in 1970, when he joined a Kobe trading house that did all of its business with North Korea.

The company's president was a high-ranking member of the General Association of Korean Residents, the pro-Pyongyang group also known as Chongryun, with extensive contacts in North Korea, and its business was exporting paper and pulp products and importing a variety of seafoods.

"I first went to North Korea in April 1971 and received secret-agent training until June 1972. My company's president told the North Korean authorities that I was a person with a bright future. Apparently, the North Koreans mistook me for a Japanese-Korean who had returned 'home,' " Sakamoto said.

His passport shows he flew to Beijing and then on to North Korea at this time and on numerous other occasions.

Then, as now, going to the North on business required an invitation from Pyongyang. Because such invitations were hard to get, Sakamoto's company decided he should remain in North Korea for as long as possible on his first trip.

"When I arrived in Pyongyang, I was not taken to a hotel but to a government-run welcome center for VIPs on the outskirts of the city. It was an isolated area surrounded by trees," he said.

Asked if he felt strange once his spy training began, he said that as a young man starting his career he was eager to build relations with his North Korean colleagues.

"I was more concerned about being a good company man at that age than with anything else, and I thought it was all part of normal company training for freshmen employees," he said.

Isolated from other trainees in the compound and surrounded by Korean-language instructors and mass media, Sakamoto, who studied a bit of Korean before joining his firm, began picking up the language. He was also trained in Morse code and in coding and decoding messages.

"When I returned to Japan in June 1972, I was given a hollow tube, inside which was a small code book. I received instructions twice via shortwave radio. The first time was in the autumn of 1972, when I was ordered to report on the Japanese government's policies vis-a-vis North Korea," he said.

During the 1970s, North Korea communicated with its agents in Japan via both standard AM radio and shortwave.

The Tokyo-based Asian Broadcasting Institute, which researches radio transmissions from various parts of Asia, says Radio Pyongyang broadcast messages on frequencies ranging from 621 to 6400 kHz. A standard AM radio in Japan can usually pick up messages between 500 and 1500 kHz, while a shortwave would be needed for the rest.

In the first few years, Sakamoto said he was not asked to do very much because the North Korean government watched him for many years to see if he was trustworthy.

One early assignment he says he did get, though, was providing clothes.

"Sometime in the mid-1970s, I was instructed to send the kinds of clothes that ordinary South Koreans were wearing. These were probably for use by North Korean spies who were going to infiltrate South Korea," he said.

In 1983, Sakamoto left his original company and entered another business, which also had North Korean connections. It was from about this time that he began to get more requests for information on Japan's policy toward North Korea.

By this time, Sakamoto had become known among business and political leaders, especially in the Kansai region, as one of the few Japanese businessmen who had good connections in North Korea.

"By the mid-1980s, I had contacts in the Japanese media, who sought me out as an anonymous source on North Korea, and they provided me with inside information on what the Japanese government was thinking and doing about North Korea," he said.

By then Sakamoto no longer used Morse code or listened to an AM radio late at night for instructions. He said the information he sent to North Korea was coded and sent by fax to a North Korean operative in China, usually in Beijing or Dailin, where it was passed on to its final destination.

Fax numbers were constantly changed, he said, as operatives switched numbers and locations to avoid detection.

In 1989, Sakamoto said, he received a silver medal from Pyongyang for his services. And then, in 1994, a gold medal.

He got the gold medal for providing information about what was going on in Japan in spring and early summer 1994, after North Korea had pulled out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and fears mounted that it was going nuclear.

"Tensions were high and many people thought the United States would attack North Korea. My job was to collect information, both through the media and through private conversations with my sources, on U.S. troop movements in Japan and on the makeup of Japan's military, and pass it along." he said. "Thankfully, war was avoided and I received the gold medal later that year for my services."

Sakamoto said he never received direct cash payments for his services as an operative, only more business for his firm. But by late 1994, the North Korean economy was in dire straits and business had nosedived.

At that point, Sakamoto said, he decided to get out of the spy business and sever contact with North Korea.

"I didn't do any more work, although over the next couple of years many North Korean agents contacted me and asked me to do just one more job. They stopped calling me in 1996 and have left me alone," he said.

Sakamoto will not publicly reveal his name, he said, because many of his friends in the Japanese media remain in positions of influence and because of fears that his first firm would cause trouble.

Indeed in the past decade, tabloid media and books alleged that senior Japanese politicians and media elements routinely received payments from Chongryun until the North's economy tanked in the 1990s.

Sakamoto now works for a company that has no connections with North Korea. For years, he said, he kept quiet about his career as a spy but has decided to tell his story now for two reasons.

"There is a lot of misinformation about North Korea, especially all of the propaganda from certain rightwing media and rightwing supporters of the abduction issue. It's damaging prospects for future Japan-North Korean relations," he said.

But another reason appears to be at least partially financial. As many former North Korean agents have done, Sakamoto may be hoping to get a book deal, though he says he has no immediate plans in that regard.

Asked if he was ever stopped by police or other authorities after returning from trips to North Korea, Sakamoto said never.

"The Japanese police knew my first company was affiliated with North Korea, and they no doubt kept an eye on those who worked there, including me. But they never stopped me from going to North Korea," he said, adding that Japan had no laws against what he was doing.

Sakamoto insisted that in the quarter century he served as an operative he did nothing illegal, but that wasn't true for all of Pyongyang's agents.

"There are spies who break into offices, smuggle drugs into the country or do other illegal things. But I would say most North Korean spies in Japan don't do anything illegal," he claimed. "They simply gather information already available, analyze it, and send it along. For 25 years, that's all I did."

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