Explosion kills Syrian technicians on North Korean train, Israeli agent spotted in Pyongyang
(Part of this story was first published in NKNew.org on June 20th, 2013 and outlines some of the extraordinary measures taken by Israel to prevent the chemical warfare attack that happened in Syria this week)
A mysterious North Korean train explosion, dead Syrian missile scientists, fake Canadian passports, a poisoned Hamas terrorist, and the Israeli assassin: One curious tale in a bloody global spy war behind the Middle East conflict
An Israeli agent on a stolen Canadian passport spotted in Pyongyang raises eyebrows after Syrian weapons scientists are killed in a mysterious North Korean train explosion.
By Nate Thayer
April 5, 2017
At the time an explosion destroyed a train in North Korea, he had just fled New Zealand charged with trying to steal the identity of a cerebral palsy victim. He later resurfaced with a fake beard on a French passport in Dubai in a hotel where a Hamas leader is assassinated.
Governments in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and North America all want to talk with the American born Zev Barkin.
Canada has been looking for him for a decade…or have they?
In the weeks after the mysterious Ryongchon train explosion that killed a dozen Syrian weapons scientists in North Korea on April 22, 2004, the Canadian Office of Foreign Affairs announced they were investigating reports that an Israeli Mossad spy travelling on a stolen Canadian passport was in North Korea at the time of the blast.
Zev William Barkan was last seen in late April 2004 in Pyongyang, North Korea, after travelling there from Beijing using a Canadian passport issued under the name Kevin William Hunter, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail and other media reports. The Canadian passport of Kevin William Hunter was said to have been reported stolen in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou on April 11, 2004—11 days before the massive blast, measuring 3.6 on the Richter scale, at Ryongchon.
“Israel Mossad agent in North Korea?” read the headline in the August 4 Jerusalem Post. “New Zealand passport scam takes Canadian twist.”
The Canadian Press reported that “Federal officials are investigating whether a suspected Israeli spy is travelling in Asia on a stolen Canadian passport.”
It said “agencies are checking allegations that Zev William Barkan – embroiled in a New Zealand espionage caper – is using a Canadian passport issued under the name Kevin William Hunter.”
“That part of the story’s being checked,” said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Reynald Doiron. “All of that being put together, we should have a clearer picture.”
He told Canadian CTV television that “We are checking the information. We know some of the answers but not all of them and we are determined to get to the bottom of this.”
Governments on five continents have been seeking answers on the clandestine shenanigans of American born Mossad agent Zev Barkan for more than a decade.
TINKER, SAILOR, TOLD’YA HE’S A SPY
Barkan was at the time wanted by police in New Zealand in an espionage scandal that had erupted in the weeks before the North Korean train explosion.
The rare public spy scandal captured New Zealand headlines on April 17, 2004 when two Israeli Mossad agents were charged with attempting to illegally obtain New Zealand passports for the use of the Mossad operative Zev Barkan. When two other Mossad operatives were arrested, Barkan, who was in New Zealand between March 3 and 20th, vanished.
As part of the elaborate forged passport ring, Barkan attempted to assume the identity of a severely disabled New Zealand man with cerebral palsy. He obtained the man’s birth certificate and applied for a passport under the New Zealander’s name and submitting Barkan’s real photograph, but his American accent raised the suspicions of a New Zealand official which sparked authorities to investigate.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff told New Zealand radio that Barkan was a former Israel Defense Force diver and Israeli agent assigned to Israeli embassies in Vienna and Brussels between 1993 and 2001.
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark has said there was “no doubt whatsoever” that the men were spies.
Secret cables from the American embassy in New Zealand confirmed that U.S. officials knew the arrested men were Mossad agents. “We have very strong grounds for believing these are Israeli intelligence agents,” the cable, released in 2009 by WikiLeaks, said. “While Prime Minister Helen Clark would not confirm which service employed the men, she noted that if one were to lay espionage charges then one would have to be prepared to offer the kind of evidence in court which our intelligence agencies do not like coming forward to display.”
One New Zealand news organization reported that “Barkan is being investigated by Macau and Chinese Immigration for his movements in April/May. The investigation includes his alleged use of the U.S. passport in the name of Zev Barkan and a second Canadian passport in the name of Kevin Hunter – which was stolen in Guangzhou China on April 11th.”
From New Zealand To Pyongyang
The court arraignments on April 16 revealed the arrest of the two Israeli’s on charges of attempting to obtain a New Zealand passport, but Zev William Barkan had “fled the country and authorities concede they would not know where to find him.”
But soon reports emerged which placed Barkan, now travelling on a stolen Canadian passport, in Pyongyang in late April, according to the Australian Sydney Morning Herald and other media.
And in the ensuing weeks, months, and years, the unlikely saga only became more curious .
New Zealand, Canadian, Israeli and Australian media reported that Mossad agent Zev William Barkan was reported seen in Pyongyang working as a security adviser for the North Korean government where he was negotiating a contract to build a security wall along the border with China with Israeli-manufactured motion detectors and night vision equipment.
Unconfirmed accounts cited an “Asian-based NGO closely linked to New Zealand intelligence networks” at a conference in Japan on North Korean refugees saying Barkan and other Israeli agents had entered North Korea under the guise of security consultants in April.
New Zealand news media quoted “a senior NGO chief executive with Global-Protect All Children” as saying “Barkan is there negotiating details of an extensive contract for design and technical equipment to support a security wall project, including- but by no means limited to -Israeli produced motion sensors and night vision equipment.”
“Barkan flew from Beijing to Pyongyang at the end of April. He was allegedly travelling on a Canadian passport issued in the name of Kevin Hunter, which had been reported stolen at the Canadian Consulate in the Southern Chinese city of Guangzhou in mid-April.”
The account said Israeli experts were conducting a “feasibility study on a security fence along the 1500 KM North Korea China border.”
New Zealand believed Barkan “was trying to secure a ‘clean’ passport for use in a sensitive Israeli undercover operation in the region, less risky than a forged passport, “ according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
Canada was already sensitive to Israel’s spy services carrying out black espionage operations under the cover of fraudulent Canadian passports. The Canadian investigation of Barkan followed another investigation Canada carried out only the previous week to determine why one of the two Israeli’s convicted in the passport scandal had used a Canadian passport, rather than an Israeli one, to enter New Zealand in 1999.
During his 2004 visit to New Zealand, one of the arrested Mossad spies entered the country using his Israeli passport. Canadian authorities concluded that the arrested Mossad agent was a “legitimate citizen,” a dual Canadian-Israeli national, and that the Canadian passport he held was “genuine.”
But seven years earlier, in 1997, Israel-Canadian relations were severely strained after two Mossad agents carrying Canadian passports were caught trying to kill Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Jordan. Mashal was injected in the ear with a poisonous toxin. Jordan immediately seized two Mossad agents posing as Canadian tourists and surrounded another six who had fled to the Israeli embassy.
Under the threat of execution and an embarrassing public spectacle after being caught red handed, an Israeli doctor was dispatched by airplane to Amman with an antidote for the poison which was administered to the murder target Khaled Mashal, who survived. The deal forced Israel to release from prison Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin.
After that diplomatic embarrassment, Israel promised Canada in 1997 that it would cease using Canadian passports to assassinate their foes.
After the Canadian Foreign Ministry announced they were investigating reports that Barkan was travelling on a Canadian passport in North Korea, New Zealand’s foreign minister, Phil Goff, said: “I have read with interest the Canadians are following up allegations he may have traveled at some point on a stolen Canadian passport. When he came to New Zealand my understanding was he was travelling on a U.S. passport. Clearly there would be co-operation between police forces in different countries to try to get to the bottom of these things.”
“The passports that Mossad agents tried to obtain illegally might have been reserved for an assassination operation in a third country, which would have caused irreparable damage to New Zealand,” Foreign Minister Phil Goff was also quoted speculating to the Israeli newspaper Haâaretz.
In July 2004, a New Zealand media outlet reported a detailed, but unconfirmed account of how the fugitive Mossad agent, Barkan, had fled New Zealand to North Korea. In an article headlined “NGOs Claim Wanted Israeli Agent Barkan In North Korea”, the report said “Zev Barkan, the suspected Israeli Mossad agent on the run from New Zealand Police, has been sighted in North Korea, according to an Asian-based NGO closely linked to New Zealand intelligence networks.”
The account went on to allege, “Zev William Barkan turned up in Pyongyang as an Israeli security adviser in April, within weeks of fleeing from New Zealand prior to a suspected Israeli spy ring being sprung for attempting to illegally acquire a New Zealand passport.”
The reports of the pilfered Canadian passport in Guangzhou, the Chinese city near the North Korean border, was only 11 days before the blast at the Ryongchon train station.
On April 22, 2004, a massive explosion tore through the train station in Ryongchon, North Korea, nine hours after North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il passed through returning from a trip to China. Wide speculation that the blast was a botched assassination attempt has lingered for years.
A number of sources say that North Korean investigators had concluded the explosion was an attempt on the leader’s life, but more logical evidence points to sabotage directed at the cargo of sophisticated missile components destined for Israel’s enemies in Syria.
The explosion destroyed 40 percent of the town and had the fingerprints of an Israeli intelligence operation. Within days, North Korean secret police from the Ministry of People’s Security, found that a rigged cell phone triggered the blast.
The epicenter of the explosion was in railroad cars where a dozen Syrian missile technicians working for the Syrian Center for Scientific Research were accompanying missile and other components toward to port of Nampo to be shipped to Damascus. All the Syrian scientists were killed. The SSRC is the secret government agency in charge of Syria’s nuclear, missile and chemical weapons development program.
On May 24, 2004, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo reported that a North Korean official visiting China said the North Korean National Security Agency had “concluded that rebellious forces had plotted the explosions.” The paper quoted North Korean sources saying security agencies had determined that a cell phone had been used to detonate the explosion and reported to the North Korean leader that “the use of cell phones should be banned for the sake of the leader’s safety.”
Indeed, five days earlier, on May 19th, North Korea abruptly halted the entire nationwide mobile phone service and confiscated all the 10,000 cell phones in the country. Mobile phone service was not resumed for another five years.
Reports emerged in the following days that North Korean investigators had found a damaged cell phone wrapped in duct tape near the site of the blast. Speculation among intelligence agencies and North Korean investigators was that Kim Jong-il, whose personal train had passed through the station nine hours earlier returning form a visit to China, was the target. Still widely unknown were the deaths of the Syrian weapons scientists and the destruction of their illicit cargo in the blast.
In July, the two Israeli Mossad men in jail in Auckland were convicted in a New Zealand court of the Israeli intelligence passport acquiring scam and sentenced to six months imprisonment by the Auckland High Court. They were ordered to pay NZ $100,000 to a cerebral palsy charity.
New Zealand High Court Judge Justice Judith Potter said: “It’s difficult to see why anyone would want a false New Zealand passport unless it was intended to be used in a way ancillary to some other offending (law).” She said: “That offending is likely to be serious or perhaps very serious.”
The New Zealand judge may have been prescient.
In 2005, the year after the New Zealand passport scandal and the train explosion in North Korea, Barkan was back in the news, accused of trafficking in passports stolen from foreign tourists in Southeast Asia and was said to operate a security business in Thailand. “He goes to Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Thailand and deals with gangs who rob tourists of their valuables and passports,” an aid worker told the Sydney Morning Herald. “Barkan is mostly interested in passports and there have been a number of Australian passports.”
After disappearing from New Zealand, unsubstantiated media reports in Australia and New Zealand placed Barkan in Cambodia, accused of running a studio making snuff and porn movies in a town on the Mekong River North of the capital, Phnom Penh, where foreign students and tourists were lured by promises of movie stardom.
In January 2010, Zev Barkan was again fingered by authorities–this time the government of Dubai—when a team of 32 Mossad agents carried out the assassination of a senior Hamas leader in a Dubai hotel room. Zev Barkan, using a forged French Passport under the name Eric Rissaneux, was caught on video wearing a fake beard, dressed in sports clothes and carrying a tennis racket, following the Hamas leader up the elevator and down the hallway to his room. Barkan then rented a room across the hall.
Dubai police chief publicly named the man using a French passport under the name Eric Rissaneux and other Mossad agents from the Kidon unit of the spy agency, responsible for assassinations and other special operations, as the culprits. There photographs were published and Interpol issued warrants for their arrest for murder.
At the time, Zev Barkan still had an outstanding arrest warrant in New Zealand for the passport scandal six years earlier.
The Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was killed in a Dubai luxury hotel room in January 2010 by Mossad operatives using Australian, British, Irish, French and Dutch passports, many of them apparently surreptitiously copied from unsuspecting travelling tourists who now had warrants for their arrests for murder.
The killers were all caught on hotel and other video cameras, some dressed in wigs, observed frequently changing clothes, some carrying tennis rackets as they stalked the guerrilla leader from the lobby to the elevators to the hallway outside his room. Hotel surveillance camera’s observed the agents using forged electronic room keys to enter the Hamas leader’s room shortly before he returned. He was found suffocated the next day, a paralyzing drug had been injected into his thigh.
But the Israeli team was long gone, all 32 having departed Dubai airport for different cities in Europe within an hour of the assassination the previous evening.
In August 2010, Dubai police chief Lieutenant-General Dahi Khalfan Tamimut announced that an unnamed “non-European country” had told Dubai in July they had arrested a Mossad suspect in June for the January assassination, but Lt-Gen Tamimut complained the Country had since refused to cooperate or provide details.
But then in October, Lt-Gen Tamimut, unhappy with the delay, named Canada as the “non-European country.”
“A senior Canadian security official here told me in July that they have made an arrest of one of the suspects,” Lt-Gen Tamimut told The Globe and Mail.
“We want clarity on this issue. We want the Canadian authorities to tell us exactly what the details are — the thing that is discomfiting is the lack of transparency on this,” he told Reuters. “The person informed me then that this information was not to be released in the media and was only for the police. Since then we have not heard any more information and I don’t understand the secrecy.”
Shortly thereafter, the Al Ittihad Arabic daily reported the suspect was one of the two people shown on the hotel’s surveillance cameras wearing tennis outfits and carrying rackets as they followed the Hamas leader to his room up the elevator in the Bustan Rotana Hotel.
Later that month in October that year Israeli TV reported that the Mossad agent under arrest in Canada was the assassin using the alias Eric Rassineux.
The Israeli Mossad agent Zev Barkin, who fled New Zealand for attempting to obtain a fraudulent passport and was then reported to be in Pyongyang when the mysterious explosion killed Syrian scientists attempting to return home with a cargo of sophisticated weaponry, has since been identified as the man who used the alias Eric Rassineux to murder the Hamas leader in Dubai.
But Canada soon refuted the allegations they had anyone in custody related to the Dubai murder, calling the assertion “baseless.”
Lt.-Gen. Tamimut also told The Globe that one of the suspects had entered the UAE on a fake Canadian passport.
“We have nothing to say at this point,” said Sergeant Greg Cox, a spokesman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
“Tamimut said we gave this info to the Dubai police, and we didn’t,” Canadian embassy officials in Dubai told the Globe and Mail.
During the height of the dispute between Canada and Dubai in October, the UAE refused Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay’s airplane, which was returning from a visit to Afghanistan, permission to fly over Dubai airspace, forcing him to take a circuitous route over Europe.
ZEV, ZE’EV, LEV
“Former Israeli diplomat to New Zealand Zev William Barkan leads a life akin to that of novelist Frederick Forsyth’s Jackal, emerging from the shadows only to be named by authorities in connection with various crimes before again disappearing,” wrote New Zealand’s Fairfax Media in July 2011.
Zev Barkan was born Zev Bruckenstein in 1967 in Washington D.C, where his family owned a “doors and windows business” and his father was director of religious studies at a synagogue. He holds dual U.S. and Israeli citizenship after his family moved to Israel in the 1970’s.
Barkan entered New Zealand on a U.S. passport and had an American accent, according to New Zealand officials.
Other aliases he has used include Zev William Barkan, Ze’ev William Barkan, and Lev Bruckenstein. He told acquaintances in New Zealand that he was American and his name was Jay.
Dubai officials believe he was travelling on a fraudulent French passport using the name Eric Rassineux and Canadian officials were investigating him using the stolen passport of Canadian Kevin William Hunter.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that “The passports that Mossad agents tried to obtain illegally might have been reserved for an assassination operation in a third country, which would have caused irreparable damage to New Zealand.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said “the New Zealand government views the act carried out by the Israeli intelligence agents as not only utterly unacceptable but also a breach of New Zealand sovereignty and international law. The Israeli agents attempted to demean the integrity of the New Zealand passport system and could have created considerable difficulties for New Zealanders presenting their passports overseas in future.”
She added: “The Israel government was asked for an explanation and an apology three months ago. Neither has been received.”
When reporters for the New Zealand Herald tracked down Ze’ev Barkan’s family in October 2004, they were not well received. In the village of Shoham, 15 miles from Tel Aviv, Ze’ev Barkan wife, Irit, answered the reporter’s phone call but claimed she did not know a Ze’ev.
His father, Yossef Barkan was more direct. “Stop calling here, you hear me. I’ve nothing to do with this business. Goodbye.”