How ill is Kim Jong Il?

Intelligence agencies around the world, including the CIA, are believed preparing for possible turmoil in North Korea, where the dictator’s health remains a highly guarded secret from the outside world.

But how does Japan match up to its overseas counterparts when it comes to intelligence-gathering? Are Japan’s James Bonds prepped for impossible missions in the event of chaos in Pyongyang?

Following are questions and answers regarding Japan’s intelligence agencies and their capabilities:

What are Japan’s intelligence branches?

There are five major known intelligence branches that make up the Joint Intelligence Council, which assembles every two weeks for a meeting under the deputy chief Cabinet secretary.

They are the Cabinet Intelligence Research Office, the Defense Intelligence Headquarters of the Defense Ministry, the National Police Agency’s Security Bureau, the Public Security Intelligence Agency of the Justice Ministry, and the Foreign Ministry’s Intelligence and Analysis Service.

Experts say there are approximately 10,000 government officials involved in Japan’s intelligence field.

How do the branches operate?

Each has its own turf.

The Foreign Ministry’s unit, for example, is well-established overseas through Japan’s embassies.

Mikio Haruna, author of “CIA Operations in Japan” and a professor at the graduate school of Nagoya University, said the Justice Ministry has the best domestic intelligence, including on North Korean activities in Japan, while the Defense Ministry has signal intelligence expertise.

“Its signal intelligence played a key role in solving the shootdown of a Korean Airlines flight” in 1983, Haruna said. The Soviet role in the downing came to light only after Japan’s intelligence provided proof.

Are the agencies productive?

Japanese intelligence operations haven’t been as high-profile as the CIA or former KGB.

But asked if they are working out plans in case Kim Jong Il dies, a senior Foreign Ministry official last month replied confidently that there are two approaches to this scenario.

“One is to do it openly and let the world know we are ready, and the other is to analyze and plan out everything (quietly),” he said.

Arthur Brown, former CIA chief for Asia, said last month that Japanese intelligence “is competent” but declined to provide further opinion.

“There is a professional courtesy involved” in commenting on the capabilities of other intelligence agencies, he said.

Should the public feel assured?

Not quite. Past incidents illustrate Japan may lack skill in playing the spy game.

In May 2001, Kim Jong Nam, son of Kim Jong Il, was deported to China after being detained for three days upon entering Japan on a forged passport identifying him as someone from Latin America. The ruse was a failure, but so was the opportunity to exploit the intelligence potential.

In May 2004, a cryptologist at the Japanese Consulate General in Shanghai committed suicide, reportedly after being involved in a honey trap in which he was blackmailed into providing classified data to Chinese agents in exchange for keeping his alleged extramarital affair with a Chinese hostess secret.

Both cases demonstrated a failure to exploit the potential for further intelligence gains, Nagoya University’s Haruna said.

“It’s very likely that Kim Jong Nam had someone waiting right outside the gates of Narita airport,” Haruna explained, noting a seasoned intelligence service would have allowed Kim to enter the country. Putting a tail on him could have uncovered other operatives in Japan.

In the Shanghai case, Japan could have played the counterintelligence game and provided, via the diplomat, misinformation to China, Haruna said.

Another case that highlights a government counterintelligence failure is Richard Sorge and his successful espionage in Japan from 1933 to 1941.

The Soviet spy, posing as a German journalist, created an information network by befriending Japanese sources, including some close to Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe.

Sorge obtained and reported vital information to Moscow, including Nazi movements in Europe.

His coverup was so complete that Japan’s intelligence reportedly believed at first he was working for Germany and not the Soviet Union.

The spy, who now is honored with commemorative stamps in his home country, was hanged at Sugamo Prison in 1944.

Japan also failed to prevent North Korean agents crossing its borders and abducting people beginning in the 1970s. The government failed to confirm Pyongyang’s involvement in the missing persons cases until the late 1980s. A 2005 report organized by intelligence experts for the Foreign Ministry suggested Japan’s intelligence organizations “are insufficient,” saying they are not suited for Japan’s role in the international community.

One shortcoming identified by experts is Japan’s lack of a coordinating agency similar to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, which collects and analyzes data obtained by multiple intelligence branches, including the CIA and FBI.

When was Japan at the top of its intelligence game?

Intelligence capabilities peaked during the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, Nagoya University’s Haruna said.

Motojiro Akashi, an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army, remains one of Japan’s most highly regarded intelligence agents.

Using his connections with Vladimir Lenin, Akashi maneuvered behind the scenes to help the revolutionary begin fomenting unrest.

Akashi’s espionage skills were later included in textbooks at the Imperial military’s Nakano School, which taught wartime intelligence agents.

Haruna said Imperial army branches were active in intelligence-gathering during World War II but had a habit of monopolizing information instead of sharing it with other departments for deeper analysis.

How would one go about becoming a secret agent?

The job may not come with an Aston Martin, a license to kill or even an attractive mate.

It may not even be a secret position. The Foreign Ministry hires intelligence analysts openly through its Web site.

Prerequisites for some of the positions include expertise in a specific field, such as U.S. politics, language capabilities and connections with both domestic and international research institutes.

Most require Japanese citizenship.

Many positions are only offered for two years, with a salary equivalent to regular ministry employees. The position includes researching special fields and organizing analysis reports.

Although the job description doesn’t sound exotic, Haruna said open intelligence-gathering far outweighs the cloak and dagger operations.

Yoshio Mori, former head of the Cabinet Intelligence Research Office, acknowledges in his book “Nihon no Intelligence Kikan” (“Japan’s Intelligence Agencies”) that the office does not work to maneuver against opposition but merely to analyze and exchange information already open to the public.

Are there any Japanese secret agents operating overseas?

There could be some operating domestically, and rumor has it that Japan is beefing up its espionage abilities through satellite spying and signal intelligence.

But Nagoya University’s Haruna thinks the government does not permit its agents to engage in espionage overseas.

“It would breach sovereignty of the other country,” he explained. The U.S., Russian, British and other governments routinely deploy nonofficial operatives overseas, including to Japan, some posing as reporters or businessmen and businesswomen.

Like in other countries, Japanese here are tapped as proxy agents because they can blend in with society, he said.

“But the situation in North Korea is completely different. It is extremely difficult to get inside. I believe even the CIA is not aware of Kim Jong Il’s health,” Haruna said.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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