Is North Korea Attacking Our Diplomats in Havana?

 In CIA, Counterterrorism, Foreign Policy

On October 3, 15 Cuban diplomats were told they had a week to leave their posts in the United States, to match staff reductions at the US Embassy in Havana following mysterious attacks on at least 22 personnel there.


U.S. diplomats stationed in Havana reported experiencing “concussion-like” symptoms in November 2016. After investigating these strange incidents over the course of many months it was hoped that whatever caused the issue was no longer active, but a new incident occurred in August 2017.  Authorities  believe that our diplomats have been attacked using some sort of sonic device that blasts sound waves above and below the range of human hearing. These sound waves can cause permanent injuries.

Latest Details

  • As many as 50 attacks are believed to have been carried out against 22 of our diplomats.
  • Originally reported to have been silent, these attacks were described as sounding like loud insects or metal dragging across the floor. These sounds accompanied a sudden wave of nausea, dizziness and headaches. Some of our diplomats have suffered permanent hearing loss, brain damage, and other forms of cognitive impairment.

My Analysis

It is possible that the expulsion of Cuban diplomats is based on the acquisition of intelligence indicating their complicity or their lack of support in investigating the matter. However, I find it more likely that this was a political move. Senator Marco Rubio (FL-R) has pushed the administration to penalize Cuba for these incidents. Separately, he has questioned the normalization of relations with a country that has not made any improvements in political freedoms or human rights (this part I agree with).

However, as much as I dislike the Cuban regime, I don’t assess that Cuba was behind the attacks. When the attacks occurred, diplomatic and economic relations were being restored by President Obama, a process that began in 2015. Cuba had no reason to jeopardize its blooming relationship with the United States. The timing of the attacks argues against the involvement of the Cuban regime.

Weeks ago, I posited that the following countries could be responsible for such insidious and sustained attacks: Russia, Iran, and North Korea. All of these countries have carried out brutal assassinations of political rivals in other countries. I excluded Iran because relations with Iran improved under President Obama, so there was no reason for them to attack at that time. Russia is certainly an option, but even in the midst of the Cold War, I’m not aware of Russia executing operations of this nature against us. They prefer to use cyber attacks, misinformation campaigns, on-the-ground harassment–indirect operations.

The attack methodology used in Havana is strange, rudimentary, and “old school” in terms of technology. The one potential actor that seems to fit the bill for such a weird attack is North Korea. And they were probably the most motivated at that time to do it.

I have come to believe that the culprit may be North Korea and here’s why:

On September 25, I devoured one of the most incredible articles I’ve ever seen regarding North Korea’s operational capabilities. It is a detailed reconstruction of the assassination operation against Kim Jong Un’s brother in Malaysia in February 2017. If you are interested in intelligence, espionage and international operations this is a MUST READ. I have seen no better description of North Korea’s modus operandi.

What the Assassination Operation in Malaysia Demonstrated:

North Korea agents don’t operate like people who just crawled out from under a rock. They are not just proficient in false-flag operations, they are experts. North Korean agents posed as South Korean and Japanese nationals. They recruited unwitting agents to carry out the operation: two young, naive and extremely vulnerable women from Vietnam and Indonesia.

False flag operations are designed to make activities appear as though they are being carried out by persons, groups, or nations other than those who actually planned and executed them. The term “false flag” originally referred to pirate ships that flew flags of the of the vessels they planned to attack. This tactic prevented victims from fleeing or preparing for battle.

North Korea is well-versed in carrying out targeted attacks.  In Cuba, the attacks were often late at night when the diplomats were alone in their homes or hotel rooms—an obvious effort to reach specific individuals. This was not a haphazard or ‘shoot from the hip’ approach.

North Koreans can operate with large teams of agents to achieve their objectives and—more importantly–are able to do so without being noticed by host governments. In the case of Malaysia, North Korean agents had the women carry out multiple dry runs in the airport before the actual assassination operation to ensure the women could properly execute the acts. (An airport is the last place an intelligence agent would want to carry out dry runs as airports are some of the most secure places on earth. In addition, you don’t want to heat up an area and compromise your operation before you get to carry it out. But the North Koreans found ways to operate under the noses of Malaysian security because this is where their target would be.)

North Koreans are brazen and bold (for all the reasons listed above).

North Koreans are able to set up robust, sophisticated networks to follow their targets for long periods of time and strike whenever and wherever to maximize their chances of success.

North Korea Agents in Cuba?

Over the past half-century, Cuba and North Korea have been each other’s most consistent international allies. North Korea has a robust presence in Cuba providing all types of support to the Castro regime (and vice versa). North Korea’s arms embargo support was finally uncovered in 2013 when Panama intercepted a North Korean ship containing Cuban arms concealed under bags of sugar. This incident represented the most significant Havana-Pyongyang commercial linkage since the 1980s.

A Disturbing Revelation?

One of the most disturbing revelations in the article is that one of the young women recruited to smear a substance on the brother (not knowing it was poisonous) was told during training that they might even send her to the US to carry out the stunt there. Was he trying to motivate his unwitting agent, or was he providing a window into North Korea’s ambition to attack Americans?

What if the North Koreans decided to carry out anti-American operations in Cuba where they operate freely and can get the job done on someone else’s territory?

Something in my gut tells me that this half-baked (yet effective), strange, movie-like operation was concocted a weirdo who’s missing some marbles. The attacks against our diplomats sounds like a page right out of North Korea’s playbook. We need to increase our awareness of this possibility to protect against these unprecedented attacks on our diplomats which have caused grievous bodily harm.

What can the U.S. do?

  • Focus on asymmetric operations against North Korea that do not put Seoul at risk
  • Continue ramping up offensive cyber operations
  • Develop a robust counterintelligence program
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