Pentagon used NGO for espionage missions in N. Korea: report

October 26, 2015

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) — The U.S. Defense Department declined comment Monday on a news report that it had secretly funded a nongovernmental aid group to carry out espionage missions in North Korea in the name of humanitarian assistance.

The online news outlet The Intercept reported earlier in the day that the Pentagon provided Humanitarian International Services Group (HISG) with millions of dollars under a secret intelligence gathering program launched in 2004 until the aid group was dismantled in early 2013.

The money was provided through a complex web of organizations designed to mask its origin, it said.

Asked if the report is true, Linda Rojas, a Pentagon spokeswoman, had no comment.

According to the report, the Pentagon tasked the founder and head of HISG with gathering the intelligence it needed inside North Korea, and he would in turn utilize HISG’s access to the country to complete the assignments.

The report cited former military officials with knowledge of the effort.

The aid group’s chief “tapped Christian missionaries, aid workers, and Chinese smugglers to move equipment into and around North Korea — none of whom had any idea that they were part of a secret Pentagon operation,” the report said.

On at least two occasions, in 2007 and 2010, the HISG chief entered North Korea under humanitarian cover, The Intercept reported, citing a former HISG employee familiar with his travel. HISG documents show that the organization boasted of having shipped winter clothing, including “ski jackets,” into North Korea during the NGO’s first 10 years of operation, the report said.

Using such a nongovernmental organization for espionage was “beyond the pale” of what the U.S. government should be allowed to do, Sam Worthington, president of InterAction, an association of nearly 200 American NGOs, was quoted as saying in the report.

He also argued that the practice of using humanitarian workers as spies “violates international principles” and puts legitimate aid and development workers at risk, according to the report.

The report also said that HISG was one of several NGOs used by the Pentagon in such a way. Some, like HISG, already existed as fledgling organizations, while others were created from scratch by the Pentagon, the report said.

Though the North Korea espionage program was launched under the administration of former President George W. Bush, it continued through the first term of President Barack Obama, and in 2012 the program was shut down, the report said.