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Tokyo police toughening espionage crackdowns amid intel threat from China, N. Korea

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department headquarters is seen in this file photo. (Mainichi/Kenji Yoneda)

TOKYO -- The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD)'s Public Security Bureau will realign its foreign affairs department as part of efforts to beef up crackdowns on espionage and other activities by foreign powers, amid an increased threat from Chinese and North Korean intelligence activities.

    Starting April 1, the foreign affairs department's current three sections will be reorganized into four, with an additional 30 dedicated personnel in charge of China and North Korea assigned to two of those sections, the Public Security Bureau announced on March 19.

    Among intelligence authorities in Japan and abroad, there is a pervading view that North Korea has been intensifying cyberattacks to acquire foreign currency. It is believed Pyongyang has repeatedly hacked exchange operators and others to illegally obtain cryptocurrency, and resold information to third-party countries after obtaining it during illegal access to government agencies and other entities to acquire funds.

    Its methods for smuggling foreign products including seafood have become increasingly sophisticated, and at least one reportedly confirmed case included disguising a point of transit as a country adversarial to North Korea.

    Currently, the MPD's foreign affairs department consists of its first section in charge of Russia and Eastern Europe, the second section mainly covering China, North Korea and also Southeast Asia, and the third section responding to international terrorism and extremist organizations in the Middle East.

    The MPD will review the second section's arrangements. It is currently staffed by some 170 personnel, and a new "third foreign affairs section" dedicated to North Korean affairs with some 90 staff will be established, while the second section will focus roughly 110 staff on China and Southeast Asia. The current third section will be renamed the "fourth foreign affairs section," in what will be the bureau's first realignment since October 2002 when the current three sections were introduced.

    "By allowing our staff to devote themselves to specialized countermeasures for each country, it is expected their expertise will be enhanced," said a senior official at the Public Security Bureau. "We'd like to flexibly adapt to the changing circumstances, and proceed with information gathering and analysis as well as investigation," they added.

    Behind the revamping of the foreign affairs department lies the MPD's view that China and North Korea are stepping up their intelligence gathering activities.

    In 2017, China implemented the national intelligence law requiring citizens and companies to cooperate with the state's information gathering. Chinese researchers and students in Japan are also subject to the law, raising the possibility they could engage in espionage even if they don't belong to Chinese government organizations.

    It is thought that not only Japanese state secrets but also intellectual property belonging to companies and research institutions are being targeted by them. There are reportedly cases in which ordinary Chinese citizens, including businesspeople, have attempted to acquire information on the latest technology by approaching Japanese corporations and other bodies to engage in joint research or forays into China.

    The MPD's Public Security Bureau suspects China's intelligence agency is behind these moves. "Even if an individual is not looking to engage in espionage activities, there may be instances where they are forced to cooperate in exchange for the safety of family in China," a senior MPD official speculated.

    Meanwhile, North Korea remains in an economic predicament due to what some call its "triple woes." In addition to international economic sanctions against the country in place for over 10 years as a response to its nuclear tests and missile launches, it is also suffering from the effects of severe flooding and border closures to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.

    "The more North Korea is driven into a corner economically, the more it is feared it will intensify its maneuvers to acquire foreign products," a Japanese source close to criminal investigations said.

    (Japanese original by Buntaro Saito, City News Department)

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