Federal agents monitoring the eight North Korean diplomats assigned to the United Nations in New York are now on high alert in light of their country's purported test of a nuclear bomb, ABC News has learned.
The eight North Korean diplomats are the enemy inside the gates -- well-regarded career diplomats selected for assignment in what they regard "as enemy territory," according to intelligence officials.
The eight men, with their spouses and families, represent the country's limited profile inside the United States.
THE BLOTTER RECOMMENDS
In the past, Western intelligence sources have reported that North Korean diplomats have been involved in the extortion of Korean-Americans who have relatives in North Korea. Now, senior intelligence officers say, the current team of diplomats seems to be striving to keep a low profile and do not appear to engage in any espionage or criminal activity.
"They are in a defensive posture," one senior intelligence official said. The intelligence official said the diplomats are now cautious so as not to cause any embarrassment to the regime. This, several officials agree, is more important to the diplomats than the value of any intelligence they would potentially gather.
The eight diplomats live under what other diplomats in the United States would consider hardship conditions, including limited cash and the need to supplement their income with food, medical supplies and care from members of the Korean community. At times, they have been spotted fishing in New York's East River.
For the diplomats themselves, however, the post in New York is considered a prestige assignment. They are housed in a high-rise apartment building on Roosevelt Island, across the East River from Manhattan. With their assignment in what is considered "enemy territory," one senior intelligence official said, "They seek to paint North Korea as a victim of U.S. policy" within the Korean-American community.
The diplomats live with little privacy. Intelligence officers say they suffer from the restrictions and paranoia that mark the regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong II. They are required to travel only in pairs. Each member of the pair is required to report to senior officials any deviations from a strict regime on the part of another member of the mission. "What they do is exactly what they are asked to do," one senior intelligence official said.
North Korean diplomats around the world have routinely been linked to espionage and criminal activities, including the distribution of counterfeit U.S. currency believed to be produced inside North Korea. U.S. officials say there is no current evidence the diplomats in New York are playing any such role. But watching for such activity is a priority for the FBI counterintelligence teams assigned to the North Koreans.
The officials say, however, the North Korean diplomats do demand large fees -- as much as $5,000 -- for visa applicants and exert pressure on the Korean community for funds to pay for the high cost of living in New York. While not considered extortion, officials say that it certainly is borderline behavior for diplomats.
In addition to the U.S. surveillance, officials say South Korean diplomats also shadow the North Koreans, eager to prevent them from gaining sympathy from the emigre population in New York and to win "hearts and minds" for their own cause, reunification.
The North Korean diplomats are among the top five counterintelligence priorities for the FBI, which is charged with investigating foreign intelligence activities within the United States. Other priorities include Russia, China and Iran, with China being the most aggressive in its efforts to gather commercial intelligence, scientific information and dual-use technology.
In the case of the North Korean-South Korean diplomatic communities, the U.S. is engaged in a triangular intelligence relationship similar to the one it has between the People's Republic of China and Taiwan.