The North Korean Connection of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov

Andrei Karlov was the Russian ambassador to Turkey. He was assassinated by the Turkish off-duty police officer Mevlut Mert Altintas on December 19, 2016 while opening a photograph exhibition in Turkey’s capital Ankara.[1] Altintas was later killed in the exchange of fire with the Turkish police.

The Russian president Vladimir Putin called the assassination “an assault on Russia and Russian-Turkish relations … [possibly] by destructive elements … who found their way into social structures, including the law enforcement and the army.” At the same time, Putin expressed his belief that it would not damage the Russian-Turkish ties because “we realize [their] importance and will make every effort to deepen them.”[2]

The similar sentiment was expressed by Putin’s Turkish counterpart, the president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who stated that “this is a provocation aimed at destroying the process of the normalization of relations between Turkey and Russia.”[3]

And, indeed, there was no downturn in the relations between the two countries after the tragic incident. Turkey immediately made several symbolic steps to honor the memory of the murdered diplomat by, for instance, naming after him the Ankara street where the Russian embassy is located and the modern art center where he was killed. The Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated at the time that Karlov’s death was “a sad loss for both Turkey and Russia” and that he “felt joy” that the street naming initiative was speedily “implemented.”[4]

Karlov was also honored in Russia by posthumously being awarded the title of the Hero of the Russian Federation and by having a postage stamp issued in his honor.[5] In addition, the MGIMO, the most prestigious university in Russia run by the Russian ministry of foreign affairs, which Karlov attended, established a scholarship fund in his name, while a high school in Moscow which he graduated from in 1971 was named after him.[6]

However, even though almost six months have passed since Karlov’s assassination, the investigation into the bigger picture surrounding the crime or, as the Russians officially refer to it, “the terrorist act” seems not to have made much progress. The Russian media, based on Turkish sources, reported that four people have been detained so far, two of whom are police officers.[7] Curiously, one of the other two suspects appears to be a Russian woman, identified only as Ekaterina B. Little is known about her except that she reportedly exchanged phone calls and social media messages with Altintas in the weeks preceding the assassination.[8] There are, however, some reports circulating in the semi-tabloid U.S. and British press that she might have been “planted by Western intelligence services.”[9]

Another twist in the story is that the Turkish authorities have recently asked for the assistance of the FBI in order to hack into Altintas’s iPhone and also to restore the emails deleted from his Gmail account.[10] Ironically, considering the long history of FBI’s anti-Russian counterintelligence operations, the Russian side reportedly agreed to it. The Russian law enforcement official is quoted as saying that if “Turkish counterparts consider it necessary to seek assistance from the FBI, which may provide quick help in the investigation of this serious crime, it means that they need it to establish the truth. We believe this is expedient.”[11] There is no information as to whether the FBI has so far contributed anything to the investigation or even whether it will do so in the future. For one thing, with the sudden (but not unexpected) departure of the director James Comey, it is likely that the FBI will be embroiled in the internal factionalist disputes for some time to come.

The North Korean Connection

In my opinion, however, there is another angle to the Karlov story that has not been explored at all. As I have pointed out, everybody, including Putin and Erdogan, linked the assassination of Karlov to his involvement in the re-establishment of the Russian-Turkish ties after the Turkish fighter jets shot down the Russian military plane in November 2015. And, indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that, at that time, Russia and Turkey were on the edge of a major military conflict. There is no doubt in my mind that Karlov, being one of the most experienced diplomats in the Russian ministry of foreign affairs, contributed greatly to the lessening of tensions between the two countries and the search for the peaceful and dignified way out of the serious crisis. His efforts bore fruit and this could hardly endear him to those in Brussels and Washington who wanted Russia and Turkey to come to blows.

And yet, I think that while this animosity definitely played a significant part in the nefarious plan to assassinate Karlov, there is also something else. I argue that the existence of this “something” contributed to his death. The assassination of an ambassador is a very rare event in the history of the Russian diplomacy. Karlov was the first Russian ambassador to be murdered abroad since the 1920s.

In my opinion, this “something” is related to the fact that Karlov spent most of his diplomatic career, that is to say, more than twenty years of his life, on the Korean peninsula, and, most importantly, in North Korea. He was stationed in the Soviet embassy in Pyongyang from 1976 to 1981 and from 1984 to 1990 and, then, worked in the Russian Embassy in Seoul, South Korea from 1992 to 1997.[12] Most importantly, he returned to North Korea as the Russian ambassador in 2001 and remained until 2006.

The fullest account of Karlov’s time in North Korea is found in the recent exclusive interview that Karlov’s wife Marina gave to the Russian monthly investigative intelligence magazine Sovershenno Sekretno [Top Secret].[13] She points out that Karlov intended to write his memoirs after completing the assignment in Turkey. The most prominent part in the memoirs would have been the time spent in North Korea.

In fact, according to Marina Karlova, her husband considered North Korea “his second homeland.” He spoke Korean language fluently and was one of the rare foreign friends of the reclusive North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-il. According to Karlova, they spent many evenings with Kim and his closest associates (presumably also his son and successor Kim Jong-un), dining together and signing Russian/Soviet songs.[14] Kim Jong-il spoke Russian and knew many Russian/Soviet songs by heart. He appears to have really liked Karlov and it is not far-fetched to suppose that Karlov became his confidant on international affairs, including the nuclear technology issues. After Karlov’s request, Kim allowed the construction of the first Russian Orthodox church building in North Korea. This is no small feat to accomplish in the country where the public expression of religious feelings is openly discouraged.

According to Karlova, it was the intense diplomatic efforts of her husband that led to the relaxation of tensions between North Korea on one side and South Korea, Japan and the U.S. on the other in the early years of the 21st century. Just as now, the world was then also on the brink of a major confrontation. It appears that Karlov was able not only to defuse the danger, but to substantially improve the Russian international standing and credibility on this issue. Russia was included as one of the key states monitoring the North-South relations and this was several years before the evident Russian return to the Great Power politics. In fact, it could easily be that Karlov forged ahead with the ambitious Russian foreign policy agenda on the Korean peninsula, even without the explicit approval of the Kremlin and based on his personal friendship with Kim.

It is worth recalling that, in those years, the Russian president Putin was not willing to confront the Atlanticist geopolitical projects as openly and vigorously as he has been doing since he returned to the presidency for the third time in 2012. In my opinion, it can even be said that, thanks to Karlov, the Russians seemed to have become a closer ally to the North Koreans than the Chinese. I am sure that this was well understood (and extremely disliked) in the aggressively anti-Russian circles in the West. This may, in fact, be that “something” that precipitated the decision to assassinate Karlov.

The Karlov’s legacy in the Russian-North Korean relations must not be underestimated. His closest associate and friend in the Russian embassy in North Korea, Alexander Matsegora, is now the Russian ambassador there. Matsegora was quoted by the New York Times as saying “he [Karlov] is no more and half of me, too, is no more.”[15] Can there be a more poignant sign of deep respect and close friendship?

In his official statement on the website of the Russian embassy in North Korea, Matsegora mourns the loss of his friend and states that so many current Russian-North Korean political, economic, and social linkages have been established by Karlov. Importantly, Matsegora also says that he had frequently kept in touch with Karlov, while Karlov was in Turkey, in order to consult with him on the present and future challenges confronting North Korea.[16] In other words, up until the day he was murdered, Karlov was still a very important diplomatic player in the Russian overt and covert dealings with North Korea. Moreover, Karlov’s only son Gennady, a graduate of MGIMO just like his father, worked in the consular section of the embassy in Pyongyang while his father was in Ankara. There is every reason to suppose that he was also receiving the instructions from his father.

An Alternative Hypothesis?

Taking into consideration all that has been said above, the following hypothesis should be pondered. If there is in the West (in the U.S.-NATO leadership) a political-military-intelligence faction that wants to go to war against North Korea, then all those who could stop this war would need to be preemptively eliminated in one way or another. Andrei Karlov was the person who had demonstrated that he could be the force for peace in the North-South relations, while also being a powerful and vocal advocate for the Russian influence on the Korean peninsula. It is plausible that this, and not the Russian-Turkish disputes, played the role of the factor precipitating his assassination. As one of the key theorists of the Anglo-American school of geopolitics, Nicholas Spykman, has written: “… strategy must consider the whole world as a unit and must think of all fronts in relation to each other.”[17]

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Filip Kovacevic, Newsbud Analyst & Commentator, is a geopolitical author, university professor and the chairman of the Movement for Neutrality of Montenegro. He received his BA and PhD in political science in the US and was a visiting professor at St. Petersburg State University in Russia for two years. He is the author of seven books, dozens of academic articles & conference presentations and hundreds of newspaper columns and media commentaries. He has been invited to lecture throughout the EU, Balkans, ex-USSR and the US. He currently resides in San Francisco. He can be contacted at fk1917@yahoo.com

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