In August 2008 the Japanese security service revealed details of a remarkable spy saga with all the makings of a Le Carre novel, if a bit further east. A deep-cover Russian intelligence officer of unspecified “Asian origin” masqueraded as a Japanese man and ran an espionage network in Tokyo over the span of three decades. Japan’s government kept the case under wraps for a number of years, so why did it choose to shed light on this extraordinary intelligence operation only recently?
From 1966 to 1995, a gentleman under the name of Itiro Kuroba managed a network of agents that fed Moscow information on Japanese politics as well as military and foreign policy. The real Itiro Kuroba, a native of Honshu, disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1965. A year later, Kuroba’s Soviet doppelgänger miraculously materialized. Using the documents of his vanished predecessor, he began a career in one of Tokyo’s trade companies. The “new” Kuroba then married a Japanese woman, who hadn’t a clue as to her husband’s true identity.
Japanese counterintelligence, the Public Security Intelligence Agency, suspects that Kuroba had a number of agents in Tokyo’s government ministries and the Self-Defense Forces. He would pass information through dead drops (secret caches) in parks and at Shinto shrines. At some point late into his mission, the security services picked up his trail because of contacts with Russian embassy personnel and unexplained trips to Europe. Kuroba must have had a sense of approaching danger, as he quickly and quietly departed Japan in 1995. Cipher pads and a radio transmitter were found when security agents searched his abandoned house in 1997[i].
Facets of the Kuroba case seem ripped from the pages of spy thrillers, but they are in fact operational methods of what the Russians term illegal intelligence work. “Illegals” are deep-cover officers who infiltrate target countries posing as its citizens or those of a third nation. As Tokyo’s revelations demonstrate, an illegal officer must be able to speak, act and think under this “legend,” a painstakingly assembled foreign identity.
Japan has long been an important arena in the twilight world of espionage; on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, Soviet GRU (military intelligence) illegal Richard Sorge was instrumental in conveying top-secret German war plans to Moscow before his discovery and eventual execution. After World War II, Soviet foreign intelligence struggled to attain position in the land of the rising sun; it was in 1954 that the KGB dispatched two illegals to establish an effective residency (undercover intelligence post). Posing as an Uyghur husband-and-wife immigrant pair arriving via Hong Kong with passports from the former Japanese colony of Formosa (Taiwan), Enver and Khatycha Sadyk would make their way to Tokyo and set up an import-export firm. In reality, Enver Sadyk was Colonel Shamil Abdullyazanovich Khamzin, a Tatar hailing from Kazan (codename “Khaleph”), while Khatycha’s true name was that of Major Irina Karimovna Alimova (codename “Bir”), a Turkmen from Ashkhabad[ii].
The Sadyks were tasked primarily with acquiring intelligence on Japan’s defense posture and overall US strategic positioning in the Far East. From the KGB’s Directorate S, the elite unit responsible for deep-cover operations, we have record of their collection priorities:
Subject to special interest in the near term should be the following issues:
Relations between Japan and the United States: how close are they, and in what vein will they develop henceforth.
Japanese policy in relation to the USSR.
How strong tendencies are for the militarization of the economy and the rebuilding of the army: its structure, finances, armaments, and possible plans for joint exercises and combat action with the United States.
By 1966, the Sadyk spousal team had completed their mission, filling 22 volumes of materials in KGB archives from successfully executed operations[iii]. The two departed on a circuitous route home to Moscow, while that very same year the new resident, one “Itiro Kuroba,” arrived in Japan.
Russian intelligence has specialized in training and deploying illegals since the advent of Soviet power. KGB Directorate S controlled illegal residencies worldwide during the Cold War, and Russia’s SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) continues that tradition today. The GRU also actively runs illegal networks to meet its strategic objectives. For opposition counterintelligence officers, tracking a Russian illegal is akin to hunting down an elusive white stag: a once-in-a-lifetime matchup.
Before the 2008 revelations of Kuroba’s long assignment in Japan, there had only been two public discoveries of Russian illegals in the post-Cold War era, both coming from Canada. In 1996, Ian and Laurie Lambert, a husband-and-wife pair, turned out to be the Dmitry and Elena Olshevsky[iv], SVR illegals using legends taken from Canadian citizens who had died in infancy. The second case, a decade later, concerned a Russian officer who had for ten years passed himself off as Montreal native and itinerant photographer Paul William Hampel. The talented Mr. Hampel used his Canadian passport to travel frequently to the Balkans, among other places. Hampel was detained and deported in late 2006, though it is not clear how the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) managed to land such a catch[v].
More recently, other major cases of Russian illegals have garnered media attention. At the end of 2009 an alleged GRU deep-cover officer was arrested in Poland after operating there for 10 years[vi]. Then, in 2010, the US FBI announced the capture of 10 SVR officers and assets, among them 7 illegals[vii]. In 2011, meanwhile, another married team under the names of Andreas and Heidrun Anschlag were nabbed in Germany[viii].
Questions remain as to why Tokyo chose 2008 as the year to finally reveal the story of an elite Russian intelligence officer’s deep-cover mission in Japan 13 years after he had disappeared. The Japanese government chose not to lift the veil of secrecy for all this time under prosaic reasoning – the PSIA wanted to see if he would ever return, in order to arrange an official welcome. When Kuroba’s passport expired in 2007, it was clear that Moscow’s man in Tokyo was gone for good.
The Japanese authorities selected an auspicious moment to disclose the story of a Russian illegal officer’s three decades undercover. Spy scandals between Moscow and Tokyo do tend to erupt periodically, but these revelations were particularly well-timed. They came only days after then-Georgian President and darling of Washington Mikheil Saakashvili attacked South Ossetia, triggering Russia’s incursion into Georgia and corresponding Western hysteria. With a new round of Cold War-style tensions now underway, the Japanese government will likely continue to play up “Kremlin machinations,” whether they be long-range bomber patrols along the coasts, joint Sino-Russian naval exercises, or espionage operations in Tokyo.
Kuroba left Japan after nearly 30 years of deep-cover service, and it’s a safe bet he had a successor waiting in the wings. The case serves as a fine example of Russian tradecraft. As Moscow has reaffirmed its status as a great power over the past decade, its spies have also been resurgent. The illegals program shows the patience, deliberation, and skill of Russian intelligence, from the annals of twentieth-century history to our own day.
[i] Дегтярев, Клим, Колпакиди, Александр. Внешняя разведка СССР. М: Эксмо, 2009.
[ii] Антонов, В.С., Карпов, В.Н. Нелегальная разведка. М: Международные отношения, 2007.
[iv] “Suspected Spy Arrested: False Identity a Russian Technique.” National Post, April 11th, 2007. http://www.canada.com/nationalpost/news/story.html?id=36afd40b-9357-40a6-9ad5-52e0e8039bf8
[vi] Ванин, Владимир. «Ай да мы: взяли русского Джеймса Бонда!» Независимое военное обозрение, 22.01.10.
[vii] “Operation Ghost Stories: Inside the Russian Spy Case.” Federal Bureau of Investigation, October 31, 2011.
[viii] Schmid, Fidelius, and Stark, Holger. “In the ‘Land of the Enemy’: Spies Strain German-Russian Ties.” Der Spiegel, July 2nd, 2013.