Agents from the most isolated country on Earth are not a thing of the past, said one man who claims his job once was to infiltrate South Korea on missions for the Kim regime.
Chosen for the job while still in high-school, Kim Dong-shik told CNN he was sent to a specialized university for four years where he learned skills including martial arts, scuba diving, how to shoot and rig explosives. Only years later when he was fully trained was he told why he had been chosen.
"When I was told I was going to be a spy... I felt stunned," Kim said. "There have been many accidents in the past with spies. A lot who were sent to South Korea were killed, so I assumed I'd die."
The physical training was only one part, Kim said; the psychological preparation was key.
"We were taught to be ready to die for the Kim regime and if caught, to make sure we were not taken alive," he said.
Kim was shot by South Korean officials, in 1995, while on a mission in Seoul so was unable to commit suicide, he said. He claims his entire family was executed back in North Korea as punishment for him not fulfilling his destiny. CNN is unable to independently verify Kim's claims as North Korea is one of the world's most secretive countries.
Life of a spy
Kim says his first mission to South Korea in 1990 was to bring back a high-ranking agent he called Lee who had been working in the country for some time. His second was to try to recruit those with anti-government sentiments who may have sympathies towards the North.
Back then he said he communicated with HQ via short-wave radio. One program from Pyongyang that aired at midnight had an anchor reading numbers -- he said that was code to tell him his next mission. He assumes methods of communicating are far more sophisticated now.
How they're enticed
One former member of the elite, Kang Myong-do said North Korean spies are operating in countries across the world including the United States, where he estimates hundreds may be working at any one time. One of their main purposes is to try to recruit Korean-Americans who lean towards supporting North Korea, he said.
"There are three different tactics they use," he said. "First is to give them free visas to North Korea, second, to give them access to do business and make money there and third, they use women to entice them. This tactic has been widely used since the '80s."
Kang said he used to work in the Unification Development Division in 1984. One of the duties of this division was to send spies to the U.S., South Korea and Japan, he said, adding that the division still exists to this day.
He said spies and the human intelligence they provide play a big role in maintaining Kim Jong Un's regime. It's a belief shared by Kim Dong-shik who says, "North Korea treats them very well. Spies are treated on the same level as generals, their education is to a similar high level. So it's fair to say North Korea considers spies as very important."