The Mole: Infiltrating North Korea, BBC iPlayer, writer and director Mads Brügger.

A cautionary tale. Otto Warmbier, a student of the University of Michigan was freed by North Korean officials after being detained and sentenced to 15 years for allegedly stealing and defacing a poster from a North Korean hotel where he was staying as an exchange student. He remained in a coma and died upon his return 13th June 2017 to Cincinnati, the United States.

That puts into perspective the risk Ulrich Larsen, the Mole (of the title), took in infiltrating North Korea in a sting operation to set up a factory to buy arms and manufacture methamphetamines on an island in Uganda, selected by ‘Mr James’ using Google maps for that purpose.

All good thrillers look at motive. Danish director and writer Mads Brügger made a documentary film, The Red Chapel, which had mocked the absurdity of life in the Democratic Republic of North Korea (DRNK). It made him persona non grata with DRNK officials but his documentary was well-received internationally. Mads Brügger received an email from Ulrich Larsen. Larsen asked the Danish director if he would be interested in making another film about North Korea.   

Ulrich Larsen born in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Catapulted into the West. Works as a chef, but is on long-term sick leave and lives off sickness money paid by the Danish government to him and his family. There’s nothing here that marks him down as a risk taker or suggest motive.

In contrast, Jim Latrache-Qvortrup ,who is given the name ‘Mr James’ and the false identity of a billionaire playboy, willing to gamble, is ex- French Foreign Legion, ex-crook and ex-businessman, which may be the same thing. Mr James is a risk taker. It’s there on his CV.

So here’s the sting. Ulrich Larsen joins the Korean Friendship Society in Denmark. Very quickly he moves up the ranks and comes to the notice of Alejandro Cao de Benos. Alejandro runs the Spanish Korean Friendship society. He’s a Spaniard, but with dual citizenship and a North Korean passport, and he has contacts to the very top of Korean society.

Oslo 2106, Alejandro asks Ulrich (they are on first name terms now) wants him to find people who’ll invest money in North Korea. From 50 000 to one million Euros. This needs to be done discretely. United Nations sanctions against North Korea mean exports and imports are closely scrutinised.

Mads Brügger assigns ‘Mr James’, an actor with the perfect background, to support Ulrich. Ulrich and Mr James meet Alejandro in Madrid 2016. Mr James explains ‘our minimum investment is 50 millon Euros because otherwise the revenue isn’t interesting’.

Alejandro lets his friends in North Korea know they have a potential investor in North Korea.

Mads Brügger gives Ulrich and Mr James a chance to step away. We know they won’t. But he warns them not to mock the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un or former leaders (his father) or any senior figure in North Korea, not even in a light-hearted way. He tells them there will be lots of toasts, lots of boozing, and if they can’t handle that they shouldn’t go to Pyongyang. His last stricture is they shouldn’t record anything. But here’s where it gets interesting.  Ulrich and Mr James agree to go to Pyongyang in January 2017.

Ulrich Larsen is now regarded as an insider. He is encouraged to record meetings because they assume it is for the benefit of the Korean Friendship Society. It is, however, for the benefit of Mads Brügger documentary film maker.

Ulrich makes several trips around Europe in 2017. Alejandro has been arrested by the Spanish authorities on illegal arms offences, and can’t travel. Ulrich needs to go and see him in Madrid to report back to his leader. Ulrich has already been to Pyongyang, and now it’s time to go back to the North Korean capital with Mr James. 

Mr Kang Chief of Cultural Affairs, Mr Ri Cultural Affairs are there to meet Mr James and Urlich

Mr Kang comes up to Ulrich’s room and asks him, ‘this man, are you sure he has all the money he is talking about?’

No real security checks have been made on Mr James. Two days of courtship, seeing the sights and drinking. Then it started getting serious

They leave Pyongyang, and visit an arms factory in what is described as a slum town.  In the basement, with big conference table, they meet the President of the factory Kim Rong-Jul and other officials. The President of the factory speaks good English. Taking out the catalogue of their weapons systems and allows Mr James to peruse it.

Menu: this is what we can sort you out with

Scud Missiles $14 million

Scud-E Missiles $25 million 1350 km range

Agreement between James (Taga Investment) and Narae Trading Corporation (arms factory)

July 2017

The trail goes cold for about a year. Then Alejandro and the North Koreans come up with a strategy to avoid United Nations sanctions and American satellites tracking exports and imports.

It involves using corrupt officials and buying an island in Uganda for $5 million. Flying a plane from Pyongyang with ‘humanitarian aid’. Loading the plane with weapons and flying it to their island. North Korean officials provided blueprints to construct a hotel and golf course on top of the island and below it, facilities to produce methamphetamines and weapons. It would be protected by Ugandian officials and labelled tourism. Payment for their services would involve triangulation, because it would come in oil.

Amman, Jordan, 2018. Mr James and Ulrich go to Jordan to meets Mr Dousouki, face to face.

North Korea needs oil because of sanctions. From Russia to Dubai to North Korea?

‘It’s like the mafia. Russia gives you the contract.’ Ulrich (laughs) ‘We are the mafia.’

Mr James signs contract for $3.2 million shipment of oil.

Mr James is an actor with no money. Ulrich is a filmmaker with no money. Yet they have exposed corrupt officials in Uganda and Jordan. They have infiltrated the top levels of North Korean society and showed how sanction- busting works. They put themselves in mortal danger.

For what? Entertainment? Ulrich admitted he’d been lying to his wife about where he was going and what he was doing. Wow, that must have been some whopper of a lie. I’m just nipping out to Beijing to meet some dodgy characters; I’ll bring back a pint of milk.

Mads Brügger when he made his own documentary was risking himself and other actors—with relatively low risk—the product, a documentary, only appearing when they were outside North Korean. Here the risk doesn’t seem proportionate to the gain.   Jim Latrache-Qvortrup and Ulrich Larsen got away with it. What if they hadn’t? Otto Warmbier defaced or stole a poster. North Korea, a militarised society in which loss of face can mean loss of life, who pays when things go wrong?

Entertainment and entertaining, but not at any price. Mads Brügger has externalised costs, but reaped the benefits. Capitalism in tooth and claw.

David Halberstam (2009 [2007]) The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War.

coldest winter.jpg

David Halberstam was killed in a car crash in 2007, clichéd as it is, his memory lives on here. This is a book all American citizens need to read before saluting the flag. Old Glory, American Presidents should be handed it when they are sworn in and take office. The Korean War began on 25th June 1950 and lasted three years. The forgotten war, a stepping stone into Vietnam. Military historian S.L.A Marshall described it as ‘the century’s nastiest little war’.

Karl Marx’s view was that ‘history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce.’ Halberstem did not witness the election of the moron’s moron, Donald J Trump, as the 45th President of the United States. An election victory the mainstream media did not see coming. (I can take a little credit here, predicting he might win, could win, did win, for the same reasons that I thought Boris Johnson this side of the Atlantic might be the next British Prime Minister when he dallied with Brexit all those years ago). The much heralded New York Times, whom Halberstem worked for, marked Hilary Clinton as a shoo-in for President.   You’d need to go back to 3rd November 1948 for such a shock election result. There was no digital then.   The Chicago Tribune  had already printed copies of its front-page banner: ‘Dewey defeats Trauman’. Harry S Trauman was, as history shows, elected President by a landslide. There’s a lesson there somewhere.

Senator Joe McCarthy’s claim then that ‘the Reds Run the State Department’ have taken until 2016 to having any semblance of truth, or fake news, depending on your point of view. There is little doubt that Russian intelligence provided finance and expertise to get the least intelligent President in American history elected. Reporter George Reedy’s quip at the height of the House of Un-American Activities investigations, that espionage wasn’t Joe McCarthy’s speciality and that ‘Joe couldn’t find a Communist in Red Square – he didn’t know Karl Marx from Groucho Marx ’, now seems the cruellest kind of irony.

Demands for a ‘loyalty test’ still hold true with Trump, but With President Trump inviting President Putin to the White House and Washington in the Autumn and announcing policy reversals be Tweet, reds are no longer under the bed and mainstream media is twittering as it catches up. There’s no doubt the moron’s moron would fail Hoover’s ‘loyalty test’. The only person Trump remains loyal to is himself.

(There is a joke here about them not being in the bed unless a couple of ‘communist’ prostitutes have peed on it, first –but that’s fake news and not very funny).

The Coldest Winter is a topical book about casual racism and hubris. The four-star General Douglas MacArthur and self-styled Emperor of the East took it upon himself to ignore orders from the Commander in Chief, President Harry S Trauman and created a coterie of sycophantic officers and yes men that took up residence in Tokyo to fight a war in Korea. There’s parallels here, of course, with the moron’s moron.

MacArthur claimed in early November 1950 that what fighting there was in Korea would all be over in three weeks and his men would be home for Christmas. He ignored warnings and intelligence reports that the Chinese were about to enter the war to support the three divisions of North Korea communist troops that were routing their Southern (ROK) counterparts. MacArthur referred to them collectively as Chinese laundrymen and a few divisions of white American troops would show up and have them running. MacArthur was right because he was always right. His armoury didn’t include being wrong.

American troops sent to Korean didn’t have enough of pretty much everything required for a war including men, military hardware, rifles that worked and ammunition. Much like the Nazis invading Russia, they were in summer uniform in temperatures thirty-below zero. Most non-conflict casualties for American troops and their NATO allies were due to frost bit. But there were lots of casualties. Americans were running, but in the wrong direction, not towards the North Korean capital as planned back at MacArthur’s headquarter, but back towards the 38th parallel, that still divides North and South Korea. Many of them never returned. MacArthur’s call for a larger war against China were downplayed.

Satellites looking down at night see only the South Korean towns lit up. The North remains in the darkness of the 1950s, when Chinese troops used horses and musical instruments to coordinate their punishing attacks.

General Douglas MacArthur presided over one of the worst military defeats since Custard at Little Big Horn. This was the same general, of course, that refused to believe the Japanese would attack America – until Pearl Harbour – and then got stranded in the Philippines when the Japanese invaded. He had that God complex.

In comparison, there’s nothing casual about the moron’s moron’s racism or hubris. It’s who he is and what he stands for and stood for in the Presidential election.

The Korean War was an unpopular war, largely ignored at home in the United States. Fighting Communism, fighting the North Koreans, fighting the Chinese, with the Russians standing on the side-lines, fighting for free Asia, to protect Europe, the word ‘crusade’ was used. Escalation of a small war, to a larger war, to a nuclear war and nuclear winter.  North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung, the Great Leader also had that God complex, which he passed on to his son, and grandson, Kim Jong-Un like a bit of stale cheese. Chinese historians, those running dogs, were not pleased that little mention was made of China’s part in saving North Korea from capitalism in a museum documenting the war in Pyongyang.  History repeating itself. God I hope not.

China, the workshop of the world, is at the stage where America was at the end of the Second World War. Where Russia was after winning the Great Patriotic War (let’s forget, like President Putin does, the sticky bit about the agreement to invade Poland and parcel up Europe with the Nazis). The rise of fascism all over Europe.  The moron’s moron in the White House. Hubris and racism meeting and having spoilt kids we call oligarchs. The rise of eugenics, populism and the belief that the atomic bomb can be deployed in a limited capacity. There lies World War III and Armageddon. The seeds of that right-wing madness is all here in the 700 pages of David Halberstam’s classic book. A must buy. A must read. My book of the year.