The Slatest

Report: Pentagon Used Unwitting Missionaries, Aid Workers to Spy on North Korea

Kay Hiramine George W. Bush
Humanitarian International Services Group founder and reported Pentagon collaborator Kay Hiramine at an event during which he received a Volunteer Service Award from President George W. Bush on May 10, 2007.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

This is pretty crazy: A new piece in The Intercept, the publication started by national security reporter/civil liberties activist Glenn Greenwald, alleges that the United States and a prominent humanitarian figure named Kay Hiramine used unwitting Christian missionaries and aid workers to help sneak espionage and military equipment into North Korea. The program is said to have been organized by the Defense Department through Hiramine’s Humanitarian International Service Group to help penetrate the largely isolated and closed-off totalitiarian country:

The Pentagon tasked Hiramine with gathering the intelligence it needed inside North Korea, and Hiramine would in turn utilize HISG’s access to the country to complete the assignments, according to two former military officials with knowledge of the effort. Hiramine, in his role as CEO of HISG, 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.

Needless to say, the repercussions had any of these individuals been caught in the act (both for the unwitting spies and for the reputation of the U.S. government) would have been severe.

The smuggled material, the Intercept’s Matthew Cole writes, included “sensors,” “small radio beacons,” and equipment for detecting nuclear activity. (It’s not clear exactly how the existence and purpose of these items was kept secret from the individuals transporting them.) The program is said to have operated from 2004 until 2012 and involved funding funneled through multiple military-linked shell organizations—you can read about the details by clicking through to the full story here. Hiramine did not respond to the Intercept’s inquries about the alleged program and the Pentagon declined to comment.