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Tuesday 16 September 2014

Official IRA's terror trip to North Korea

New book reveals details of the group's secret 1988 mission

Suzanne Breen

Published 17/11/2013 | 01:00

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DEAR LEADERS: North Koreans bow down earlier this year to statues of the country's late leaders Kim Il Sung, left, and Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang

OFFICIAL IRA members went on a top-secret training mission to North Korea, where they were taught assassination techniques and bomb-making skills by the totalitarian regime's military. Former members of the republican paramilitary group have disclosed details of their 1988 terror trip to Pyongyang in a new book.

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North Korea Undercover by BBC Panorama reporter John Sweeney, reveals how the Official IRA men delivered a gift to President Kim Il Sung to thank the dictator for his support. It was a beautiful piece of Belleek porcelain, over 100 years old, which they had deliberately stolen in Belfast for their visit.

Author John Sweeney interviewed members of the six-strong Official IRA team that was trained by the Marxist dictatorship.

One of the team, who is from west Belfast, tells how they were taught bomb-making, kidnapping techniques and the best way to kill a person without a gun. "Stab a man in the back of the neck and then twist, cutting into the cerebral cortex."

The military training mission took place at a time when the Workers' Party, formerly the political wing of the Official IRA, had four TDs in the Dail.

The organisation has its roots in divisions within republicanism in 1969-70. The IRA split into the Officials and the Provisionals at the start of the Troubles.

While the Provos advocated 'armed struggle' against the British state, the Officials declared themselves socialist and said violence should be used only for defence and retaliation.

In May 1972, the Officials called a ceasefire but the organisation remained steeped in violence and organised crime over future decades. It engaged in bloody feuds with the Provos and the INLA and was involved in extortion and armed robberies. The Officials killed 52 people during the Troubles, 23 of whom were civilians.

When they visited North Korea in October 1988 during the regime's 40th birthday celebrations, the Official IRA were greeted by their hosts as fellow revolutionaries "fighting imperialism".

The Irishmen had travelled to North Korea via Moscow, flying from Shannon Airport. The KGB helped in an elaborate plot to conceal their real destination from Western intelligence agencies.

After arriving in Pyongyang, they were taken in Ministry of Interior limousines to a military base 30 miles north of the capital. They were sworn to secrecy.

Six hefty, white-skinned Irishmen had to spin the unlikely story that they were members of the Maltese Communist Party. Their two-month training mission often reached the heights of comic absurdity.

They were told to dress in the uniform of officers of the Korean People's Army, taught how to salute North Korean-style and given lectures about 'Great Leader' Kim Il Sung and the wonders of one-party rule.

They were trained in hand-to-hand combat, with which they struggled because of their fitness levels.

In a deserted mock-up town, they practised firing assault rifles, pistols, machine guns, rockets and making and detonating bombs.

They soon realised the North Koreans had been fooled into thinking they belonged not to a small, ramshackle Irish terror group but to "a full-scale army with tanks in the mountains, waiting for the revolution".

The Official IRA had effectively "conned" the Koreans.

The regime had a history of funding terror groups it believed would make trouble for the West. The Provos had long been keen to woo Pyongyang, with Sinn Fein sending the dictatorship messages of solidarity.

Gerry Adams attended a reception at the North Korean Embassy in Denmark to toast Kim Il Sung's 75th birthday in 1987. But the Koreans never trusted the Provos, preferring to arm and train their republican rivals. The Official IRA contingent soon tired of North Korea. They hated their meals.

"The food was crap," one man said. "They gave us dog soup once. There was a scrap of meat and it had dog fur on it."

They also loathed the rigorous training regime their hosts imposed. "Up at 6.30am running around the parade ground in pitch darkness before breakfast. We knew it was a load of bollocks."

After they refused to continue training, they were taken to a circus to "raise their morale". They were ordered on a merry-go-round and filmed by the Koreans riding on the merry-go-round.

The Official IRA men didn't enjoy their monastic existence either, pining desperately for women. The trip ended embarrassingly when they were thrown out of North Korea for fighting among themselves.

One said they left the Marxist state totally disillusioned: "It was the worst place I ever went to. The poor b******s thought they were living in utopia."

Despite this fiasco, the Koreans continued to work closely with the Officials, sending them guns and hosting future delegations.

One of the delegation said they were treated "like royalty". He said: "We were driven away in a great big black Mercedes Benz. I'd never been in one before.

"There were 30 police motorbike outriders racing down these enormous empty roads."

The delegation stayed in luxury villas near Pyongyang. The staff's subservience upset him. "If they saw you, they'd freeze on the spot, eyes down, frozen until you passed.

"They were virtually slaves. It was so servile, the bowing and scraping, I said to myself, 'do we really want this for Ireland?'"

'North Korea Undercover: Inside The World's Most Secret State', John Sweeney, Bantam Press, £20.

Sunday Independent

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