North Korea is a danger zone even for seasoned spies but for Ulrich Larsen - a chef with no military or espionage training - there was the very real possibility that if he visited Pyongyang undercover, he might not make it out alive. Still, the Danish cook was determined to expose Korea’s illegal arms trade, so Ulrich set out with a video camera, a cover story as a billionaire’s chef, and a travel visa to the most dangerous place on earth.

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True Spies Episode 94: The Mole

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? This is True Spies Episode 94: The Mole.

ULRICH LARSEN: They drove us through Pyongyang, the showcase city of Pyongyang. But suddenly, we took a turn and we went into another part which they will never show people. A real slum area. There was urine running down the street, and the houses were about to collapse, literally. And we were asked to go down in a basement in those buildings and I was like: “Okay. We are busted. They know why we are here.” And walking down to that basement, the only thing I was waiting for was the sound of a gun being loaded and my life would stop. 

NARRATOR: What’s it like to be a mole? An undercover agent maintaining a fake persona, covering up who you really are from your friends and closest family? What’s it like to be that mole inside what’s possibly the most dangerous country in the world to be a spy? What kind of skills do you need to succeed in not getting found out?

ULRICH LARSEN: I think that I'm just a calm guy. I was told by the CIA that they tried for 20 years to put a person in my position, and I did it myself without the CIA helping me out. I just did it because I'm me, on a mission. So I'm still waiting for a job in the CIA but I don't know if they want to hire me. My name is Ulrich Larsen, and I'm a former chef. 

NARRATOR: In this episode of True Spies, you’ll hear how this former chef from Denmark gained the complete trust of an organization with close ties to one of the world’s most controversial regimes. 

ULRICH LARSEN: It was just a step-by-step thing, doing the right things, and also a little bit of luck, of course, ending up in North Korea. And after six days, [I was] being asked to visit one of the parliament buildings and found out that I was being awarded a friendship medal and the badges of the leaders. That was completely insane. But they trusted me that much. 

NARRATOR: With no formal military or espionage training, Ulrich Larsen went looking for evidence of illegal international trade by North Korean actors.

ULRICH LARSEN: Suddenly, we were sitting in this room with the representative of the government, the president of the arms factory, and people from the pharmaceutical industry. 

NARRATOR: In an elaborate undercover op that required nerves of steel to carry out.

ULRICH LARSEN: They just took out papers showing all their weapons and missiles. And Mr. James and I were looking at each other and was like: “What the f*** is going on? After they have shown us these things they will kill us!”

NARRATOR: This is a story with a cast of characters that include an actor posing as a shady billionaire investor, a Danish film director, and the Spanish head of the International Korean Friendship Association. Strap in for an extraordinary journey from Denmark to North Korea. Just over 10 years ago, Ulrich Larsen was a happily married chef living in Denmark with a wife working in advertising and two kids. His life was following a completely conventional path in the Copenhagen suburbs until a medical diagnosis brought that life to a screeching halt. 

ULRICH LARSEN: I had a long period of hard work and feeling bad, and well… Suddenly I was lying in the hospital bed and the doctors figured out that I had chronic pancreatitis.

NARRATOR: Ulrich’s pancreas was struggling to produce insulin. He was developing diabetes. As his health became more fragile, he couldn’t keep up the physically demanding work required of a full-time chef. In his early 30s, with his first career at an end, he spent many hours on the couch streaming videos and wondering what to do next. Then he saw a film that was to dramatically change the course of his life, The Red Chapel, a documentary that followed Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger and two Danish comics on a trip to North Korea disguised as a vaudeville act in an attempt to ridicule the nation's regime. The film - which claimed to expose desperate living conditions inside North Korea - made a deep impression on Ulrich, whose childhood experiences had left him with a particular revulsion toward totalitarian regimes. So much so, that he began to wonder if he could help director Brügger capture even more damaging footage.

ULRICH LARSEN: Quite naive, I wrote Mads Brügger. And he just wrote back: “That sounds really interesting.”

NARRATOR: What intrigued Mads Brügger was the plan Ulrich had proposed. It involved Ulrich going undercover and infiltrating an organization called the Danish Friendship Association of North Korea, or KFA - a group of Danes who were sympathetic to the North Korean regime and intent on promoting its virtues to their fellow citizens. Brügger put Ulrich in touch with his long-time collaborator, film producer Peter Engel. 

ULRICH LARSEN: And they gave me a camera and said: “Off you go.” And that I should find a story.

NARRATOR: Posing as an enthusiastic sympathizer to the North Korean cause in 2009, Ulrich went and enlisted with the KFA. His relative youth and apparent zeal weighed strongly in his favor.

ULRICH LARSEN: Because I was the young one and they were plus-60, the board members. And I think that the chairman saw a light in me, to find something or somebody who could carry on in the future when he would pass away. 

NARRATOR: First, Ulrich needed a way to establish his sincerity. He had to prove his loyalty to the Danish KFA members and the regime in North Korea. What would you do to inveigle your way into the good graces of a fringe group like this? Using the camera given to him by filmmakers Brügger and Engel, Ulrich began filming the activities of the Danish KFA. 

ULRICH LARSEN: And I said to them: “Well, why don't we use this media called YouTube to tell the people what we are doing in this association. I could do some video clips and I can edit a small film and we can just release it on YouTube.” And they were like: “Wow, great idea. Let's do it.” And that was practically my way into the whole thing. I did real propaganda to show this fantastic association and how wonderful North Korea is.

NARRATOR: But where did Ulrich, a former chef, living in Denmark, glean the insight to make propaganda that appealed so strongly to members of the Korean Friendship Association? To unravel that puzzle, we have to go way back to Ulrich’s childhood. Because Mads Brügger’s film portrayal of a divided Korea had rekindled some powerful memories for Ulrich, who grew up in the era of the Berlin Wall and a divided East and West Germany. To young Ulrich, East Germany was a dark and fearful place. 

ULRICH LARSEN: My dad used to work on the ferry that sailed between Denmark and Germany, and sometimes he sailed to the West. In West Germany, I could have a Coke and fries, a sandwich, or whatever, from the Border Police. And if I went with him to East Germany, I was told by the captain of the ship that if I went down the ladder, I would probably get killed, shot, or even worse. 

NARRATOR: But Ulrich got a glimpse behind that frightening image of communist East Germany when he accompanied his father on a work trip. Ulrich found himself in an arcade playing a video game - for so long, in fact, that his hand started getting tired.

ULRICH LARSEN: And then, suddenly, this boy came up to my right side and started shooting for me. And I was like: “Cool. I can't control it. You can shoot it.” I’ve spoken fluent German since I was a little kid, so we could speak. And I found out that his mom was a schoolteacher in East Germany and his dad was working as a chef at the town hall in Rostock and the north of Germany.

NARRATOR: The boys became pen pals. Then Ulrich’s parents suggested that the family take a trip to see his friend, a visit that was to make an unforgettable impression on young Ulrich. 

ULRICH LARSEN: For me, visiting East Germany… Growing up in the southern part of Denmark, I could go to a supermarket, buy a coke, or whatever I like. And down there… There was practically no food at all. And one morning, we went down for breakfast to buy bread and we were waiting an hour and a half for some bread. And I was told that we were lucky today because maybe we wouldn't be able to buy bread.

NARRATOR: Ulrich had seen how the communist authorities in East Germany had used propaganda to make its citizens feel they were living in a great country, despite the evidence of their own hungry bellies. He used those insights from his childhood to make short promotional videos for the KFA, extolling the wonders of life in North Korea. The videos depicted events at Danish KFA meetings, featuring impassioned speeches on how the Danish and international news media were misrepresenting real life inside North Korea, and how great life there really was. The short films were an instant hit with the Danish KFA’s largely elderly membership. So much so that they sent them to North Korea to air on state television. But Ulrich soon realized that to get footage for a truly groundbreaking exposé, he’d need to find a way to go to North Korea. After three years as a rising star in the Danish KFA, Ulrich had just the opening he’d been looking for. He was introduced to the president of the International Korean Friendship Association, Alejandro Cao de Benós, a Spaniard and an ardent supporter of North Korean Premier Kim Jong-un. De Benós had been to North Korea over 40 times. When he met Ulrich, he liked what he saw.

ULRICH LARSEN: And I think he saw me as a bright person - not being silly, wanting to drink cheap beer, and getting drunk but [instead] paying my respect to the regime and speaking with him. That just was a big turning point in all this. And from then on, North Korea opened for me and for the team.

NARRATOR: Having impressed de Benós, Ulrich was invited by him and the Danish KFA’s chairman to go to North Korea as an up-and-coming member of the Danish delegation. The trip was timed to coincide with an important anniversary celebrating the regime’s founding father, Kim Il-sung. 

ULRICH LARSEN: I knew for nine months I was going because it was the celebration of Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday. And it was very important for the North Koreans because it was the biggest day in North Korea ever. 

NARRATOR: On what was to be the first of two trips to North Korea, an inexperienced Ulrich learned a lot about the difficulties of filming inside the country. 

ULRICH LARSEN: I was very excited to go there. I only brought a small handheld camera and my iPhone, an old iPhone. And the first thing that they took away from me was the iPhone. And they looked at my camera and it was nothing big. It was just like a regular tourist camera, so I didn't have any problems there. 

NARRATOR: On the way to their hotel in the North Korean capital Pyongyang, a passenger on their bus took a picture of some children standing under a roof, sheltering from the rain. A North Korean security minder immediately stepped in.

ULRICH LARSEN: And in the same moment he took the picture, the guide fell over him and said he had to delete it because that is the kind of pictures that the US would use to [spread] bad stories about North Korea. It was just like: “Delete it or we are going to take your camera.” And the statement after that was: “You take pictures when we tell you to take pictures.” That was one of the first guidelines we had on the bus after the welcoming. 

NARRATOR: Ulrich soon learned that these strict rules were applied with draconian efficiency. 

ULRICH LARSEN: Being in North Korea, you will never be left alone for more than two minutes because there will be a guide constantly watching you one way or the other. It's quite scary, actually, because if you just want to take a walk, be yourself outside, it's impossible. You can walk like 100 yards, 300 yards, and then suddenly on your right, a guide will come and say: “Hey, are you walking here? Oh, let's go over here and see.” They're going to draw you back to the hotel so you don't get away from where they put the tourists. And that was really scary. 

NARRATOR: Being watched by minders 24/7, how would Ulrich ever manage to capture revealing evidence of North Korean arms dealing on camera? The key to Ulrich’s success was that he was now trusted by both the Danish KFA and the North Korean regime so much that he was allowed to openly film any scenes that could feature in upcoming propaganda efforts. So, on the 100th anniversary of the birthday of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, Ulrich was asked to visit one of the parliament buildings. 

ULRICH LARSEN: Finding out I was being awarded a friendship medal and the badges of the leaders… That was completely insane. But they trusted me that much. So I was blown away by the trust. 

NARRATOR: Not only trusted by the Korean elite, but Ulrich also befriended a North Korean man who he would meet again at a crucial point on his second visit to the country, the enigmatic Mr. Kang. He didn’t know it then, but Kang would turn out to be the key to Ulrich’s success.

ULRICH LARSEN: The first time I met Mr. Kang was in 2012. And, at that point, he was working in the agency of Cultural Relations with foreign countries. He was our guide and head of our Danish delegation, a very nice man. I met his wife and daughter and he was really interested in me and we had a lot of great conversations - being parents, and those kinds of things - and the differences between Denmark and North Korea.

NARRATOR: However, there were indications that Mr. Kang was much more than just a tour guide.

ULRICH LARSEN: We went out to a shooting range and we couldn't hit the targets. So we made excuses - well, the gun is bad, you know. And then Mr. Kang took a gun in his hand. He pointed at the target and it was a bullseye, literally. 

NARRATOR: All this made Ulrich suspect that friendly tour guide Mr. Kang was actually a North Korean secret agent. When Ulrich’s group was taken to see a North Korean Olympic Taekwondo team training session, further proof emerged.

ULRICH LARSEN: And there was this training doll which was around, 190 high, 10 feet taller than him, and I asked him for fun: “Could you hit that one in your head with your leg?” And he said: “Yeah, sure.” And I said: “Show me.” And he was in his suit and he was just taking notice of this all. And he just jumped up and hit it right in the back. So I was like: “Wow, he is a trained agent.”

NARRATOR: Ulrich had not only survived his first visit to North Korea undercover. He’d become much closer to Alejandro Cao de Benós, the Spanish-born head of the International Korean Friendship Association, the organization coordinating global support for the North Korean regime. De Benós asked Ulrich to help him find a rich businessman interested in trading with the Koreans to provide them with cash to help support Kim Jong-un’s regime. The North Koreans could provide anything, de Benós explained - including illegal pharmaceuticals, and weapons of any kind. If Ulrich could broker such a deal, it would be the perfect opportunity to capture, on film, illegal trading by North Korea. The international community already believed this was happening but they had no firm evidence. It would also be revealing footage for the documentary Mads Brügger wanted to make. All Ulrich and Brügger had to do was find an unscrupulous billionaire willing to play along with the scheme. 

ULRICH LARSEN: Mads Brügger’s director spoke with two real businessmen from Denmark, some of the richest people in Denmark, asking if they want to help him in a project. And they were interested. And he said: “Well, you have to be yourself and let's see what happens.”

NARRATOR: Unsurprisingly, the businessmen wanted to know more about what they were getting into - and with whom. As soon as they learned it involved the North Koreans they suddenly weren’t interested. 

ULRICH LARSEN: And they were like: “Okay, thank you. But we are out.” 

NARRATOR: Then, from an unexpected source, another lucky break. A guy who helped Mads Brügger with security issues - including watching Ulrich’s back from time to time - was drinking in a bar in Copenhagen when…

ULRICH LARSEN: He met up with a beautiful, tall lady. And he walked over to her, chit-chatting. She was alone. And then suddenly Jim came in, Jim Latrache. 

NARRATOR The lady’s husband. After introductions all around, the two men were soon deep in conversation. Jim revealed he was a former foreign legionnaire, recently released from an eight-year sentence in a Danish prison for cocaine dealing. A flamboyant and charismatic man, Jim Latrache-Qvortrup had exactly the look of the rich but shady international businessman, someone who Ulrich just might be able to convince the North Koreans was the real deal. 

ULRICH LARSEN: Within 10 minutes, he told the story to my security guy, who was a former Danish Navy SEAL soldier, and they just exchanged phone numbers. 

NARRATOR: The security guard shared this information with Mads Brügger, who put in a phone call to Jim.

ULRICH LARSEN: He called him up and said: “Hey Jim, I'm doing a project and I need someone to play a billionaire.” And he was like: “Wow, that's me.” “Yeah, but don't you want to hear what it's all about?” “Oh yeah, yeah.” “Well, you need to play a billionaire who wants to buy some illegal things. Practically, you have to go to North Korea if things go the right way.” And Jim was like: “Well, okay, when are we going to have an answer?” “Well, half an hour,” Mads Brügger said.

NARRATOR: It didn’t take Jim long.

ULRICH LARSEN: He just said: “I need to think about it... I’ll do it.” 

NARRATOR: The operation - to initiate and film illegal North Korean arms dealing - was underway. Ulrich had to come up with a new name for Jim Latrache-Qvortrup, who would be acting the part of the unethical billionaire. He settled on ‘Mr. James’. The next step was to introduce Mr. James to de Benós - the Spanish head of the international friends of North Korea association, a meeting which took place in Oslo, Norway. It soon became apparent that de Benós was much more than just an outspoken supporter of North Korea. He was willing to broker deals in weapons and pharmaceuticals, prohibited under United Nation sanctions, to assist his friends in the East.

ULRICH LARSEN: Now he was there, just in front of Alejandro, and we didn’t know what to expect. But five minutes after they met, Mr. James and Alejandro just started talking about how North Korea could sell and produce weapons and methamphetamine, how they couldn't undergo the sanctions, practically saying that in North Korea there are no rules. 

NARRATOR: But not long after that meeting, a giant spanner was thrown into the works. The Spanish authorities had caught wind of de Benós and his role in international arms trafficking. They served him with a warrant and took away his passport, which meant Ulrich would now be in sole charge of taking phony billionaire Mr. James to North Korea. This turn of events would give Ulrich a much better chance to get the secret footage he needed - and would put him in a lot more danger. At this point, Mads Brügger decided that Ulrich needed to be better prepared for the mission ahead so he found a former CIA operative who was willing to give Ulrich some training in the art of working undercover. Ulrich traveled to the US for his one-week crash course in espionage.

ULRICH LARSEN: He told me that to be the perfect mole, a secret agent, you need to be 95 percent authentic and 5 percent a mole. 

NARRATOR: In essence, the secret for Ulrich was to play a slightly more naïve version of himself 95 percent of the time, leaving just the remaining 5 percent left to be a ruthless undercover operative. In 2017, it was time to find out if his cover would work and if the North Koreans would believe that Mr. James was indeed a rich investor looking to buy weapons and illegal pharmaceuticals in return for lots of cash. With Alejandro Cao de Benós still grounded in Spain, Ulrich, in a Mao-style suit complete with his North Korean friendship medals, and Mr. James, sporting an improbable, lavish mustache - boarded a plane to Pyongyang. They hadn’t had much time to concoct a backstory so they decided to keep it simple. 

ULRICH LARSEN: Meeting up with him in the airport, we had 45 minutes to do our cover story, which was practically nothing - I’d been cooking for him and I knew that he was likely to invest money. And that was our way in. Not a big story, just being ourselves practically, just that I have been cooking for him, helping him when he comes back from his travels as a billionaire. 

NARRATOR: On arrival in Pyongyang, Ulrich had to try to get his film equipment through North Korean security. Would he succeed? 

ULRICH LARSEN: I have a 4K camera with me and a laptop and hard drives. If they're going to take it away from me, we don't know what's going to happen. But as soon as we landed in Pyongyang, I walked two steps out of the flight and I was pulled aside by Mr. Kang, who was my contact person in North Korea. And, after 15 minutes, a police officer came down and said that I had to come with him to pick up my luggage. And Mr. Kang walks with me and I have a camera and a computer. And he looked at me and said he needed to speak with a higher-ranking officer to make a decision. 

NARRATOR: We find Ulrich Larsen - aka ‘The Mole’ - in Pyongyang Airport’s arrivals hall. He’s just been pulled over by security, with a bag full of illicit film kit in his luggage. If that equipment was found and confiscated, it would be an end to an undercover scheme that had taken years of meticulous preparation. Fortunately, an unexpected ally stepped up. Mr. Kang, Ulrich’s tour guide from his first visit to North Korea, had apparently been promoted in the intervening years and was now working for an outfit called Narae Trading - the very company planning to sell Mr. James the illegal weapons and pharmaceuticals. 

ULRICH LARSEN: And then Mr. Kang said: “Well, do you have your medal and your badges?” And I said: “Yes, just under my jacket.” The second he saw those badges and medals, he stepped three steps behind and bowed for me and said: “Sorry. Welcome to North Korea comrade.“

NARRATOR: Ulrich had made it out of the airport with all of his filming gear in his luggage. Now he had to set up the meeting between Mr. James and the North Koreans selling illegal weapons and pharmaceuticals. But, day after day, Ulrich and Mr. James were only allowed to experience a series of tourist junkets. With no sign of the promised meeting with Narae Trading, Ulrich let Mr. Kang know that time was running out.

ULRICH LARSEN: And I was like: “Listen. In four days… we are on a flight back from [Sunan Shuofang International Airport] to Beijing and then back to Copenhagen. And then you lose Mr. James.” And then from that moment on, everything just changed. 

NARRATOR: The next day, the North Koreans sprang into action. 

ULRICH LARSEN: We were asked to go in our car and they drove us through Pyongyang, the showcase city of Pyongyang. But we took a turn and we went into another part which they will never show people, a real slum area. Even though it was very cold there was urine running down the street, and the houses were about to collapse, literally.

NARRATOR: What happened next almost made Ulrich’s heart stop.

ULRICH LARSEN: And we were asked to go down in a basement in those buildings and I was like: “Okay, we are busted. They know why we are here.” And walking down to that basement, the only thing I was waiting for was the sound of a gun being loaded and my life would stop. But that didn't happen. 

NARRATOR: The terrifying moment took a completely unexpected and bizarre turn.

ULRICH LARSEN: We got to a big door, which was probably 10-feet thick, covered in leather. And inside that, behind that door, was a very luxurious room. When we came in, the karaoke machine was playing and the lights were rolling and it was so we were thinking: “Well, first, we're going to a party. Then they're going to kill us.” 

NARRATOR: Instead of sudden death, the scenario that Ulrich had plotted to witness for so long began to unfold in front of his eyes - and more importantly, his camera. Yes, the North Koreans trusted Ulrich so much by this stage that they allowed him to openly film the proceedings.

ULRICH LARSEN: And then suddenly we were sitting in this room with the representative of the government and the president of the arms factory and people from the pharmaceutical industry. And we just started talking. And of course, they were asking Mr. James about what he could offer. And he told Alejandro in the beginning that it was €50 million, that there was a minimum investment. And suddenly, they just took out papers showing all their weapons and missiles. Yeah, it was like having a menu. And Mr. James, and I were looking at each other and it was like: “What the f*** is going on? And then suddenly they pushed me away and took my camera and started filming me in this room with all the papers and the contracts and celebrating.” 

NARRATOR: Now, so completely trusted by the North Koreans that they were helping him film the meeting, Ulrich and Mr. James had a long conversation with their hosts, figuring out the details of how the illicit deal might work. 

ULRICH LARSEN: And we even came to the conclusion that it would be wiser to produce those things outside of North Korea because having me and Mr. James traveling in and out of North Korea maybe 10 times a year would look quite crazy. We will be watched entering North Korea and going out all the time.

NARRATOR: Instead, the North Koreans proposed building a factory in Africa under the guise of a new hotel development. But, hidden underneath, would be a facility for producing weapons and methamphetamine. Under this plan, the North Koreans would fly out workers, with specialist skills in such weapons and pharmaceuticals manufacturing. 

ULRICH LARSEN: And it just ended up in a huge celebration with a lot of food and a party, actually. The funny part is, in between those negotiations, the president of the weapons factory stood up and took the microphone. He started singing karaoke and he was singing something about the leaders. I could recognize the names. And then they said: “Ulrich, you're going to sing.“

NARRATOR: Ulrich realized he was about to be busted. No, not for being a spy, but for his terrible singing voice.

ULRICH LARSEN: I sing really, really badly. Even my kids hate it, but I said: “Well okay, but it's got to be easy going and this has to be English.” “Yeah, yeah, no worries.” And then they put on Celine Dion with My Heart Will Go On. So I sang one or two lines and I said: “No, I don't want to destroy the song.” And then I started singing a Danish children's song and that was even better because I could clap and do the things as you do in the song. And they loved it because it was something personal for me. And then, I ended up saying: “Well, that was how we love our kids in Denmark. And I love my kids as much as I love the leader.” And just those small words could really make you a star in North Korea. 

NARRATOR: It was an inspired bit of improvisation. Just those few words banked Ulrich some serious goodwill among his new acquaintances. Having successfully laid the plans for the illicit deal, Ulrich and Mr. James exited North Korea without being exposed. But now they had to go along with the next part of the plan which involved the North Koreans finding a friendly country where they could set up their highly illegal weapons and pharmaceutical manufacturing plant. They settled on Uganda. The plan was a grand one. The North Koreans would buy an island in the middle of Lake Victoria and pretend to build a tourist resort there as a front for their operation. Arriving in Uganda and resuming their undercover roles, Ulrich and Mr. James were taken to the island where the local population had been completely hoodwinked by the Koreans and their Ugandan collaborators. 

ULRICH LARSEN: We came out to this island and were welcomed by a great committee. And we found out that the real estate broker told them that two people will come to build a hospital or medical clinic. 

NARRATOR: Ulrich and Mr. James had been led to believe that there were 300 to 400 people living on the island, all of whom would need to be airlifted off to make way for the Korean contraband factory. 

ULRICH LARSEN: So we hired a helicopter to fly over the island and we could see that on the other side of the island there were also people. We estimated there were probably around 4,000 people living on that island. 

NARRATOR: The North Koreans made preparations to buy the island and start construction of the weapons and meth production facility. Meanwhile, still grounded in Spain, Alejandro Cao de Benós asked Ulrich to visit him in Tarragona with an update on progress. This time Ulrich was secretly filming the meeting with a concealed mic and camera. The briefing was almost over when Alejandro jumped up out of his chair.

ULRICH LARSEN: He said: “I have to show you something.” And then he walked out in the room behind. And the meeting was practically over, so I didn't know what to expect. But then he came in with a small [item] that looked like a telephone. And then I saw straight away that it was a bug detector for sweeping out cameras and microphones. 

NARRATOR: Not only was he wearing two mics and a concealed camera, Ulrich had two more mics and another camera in his backpack. His situation had suddenly become very dangerous. He was in a basement with Alejandro and one of his loyal followers behind two locked iron doors. If it was discovered that Ulrich was wired, he was trapped. 

ULRICH LARSEN: And he just starts sweeping it around and just in front of me. It just [brought out] noises. And I was like, Oh, shhh…. sorry, this is not good. 

NARRATOR: What would you do in this incredibly dangerous situation? Would you panic, attempt to run? Or would you try and blag your way out? In a moment of inspiration, Ulrich remembered that he was carrying his car key, complete with its electronic door opener.

ULRICH LARSEN: And I was like: “Stop. Stop. Stop,” inside. And I was like: “It’s the key.” And he was like: “Yeah, yeah. It's the key.” And the key was just in the center between me and all the items I brought with me. And then he just said: “Well, I swept this many times before the meeting.” And then I was like: “Well, you probably do that every time.” 

NARRATOR: Having been saved by his car keys and his quick thinking, Ulrich exited the basement and rushed to his car, putting on a Metallica track to steady his nerves. 

ULRICH LARSEN: When I came out of the car, I was tearing the microphone and camera off my body. That was a really close call. That was terrifying. 

NARRATOR: It was now time to finalize this complex, completely illegal, sanctions-busting deal. Ulrich arranged for the North Koreans to meet with himself and Mr. James in a convincingly lavish setting in Copenhagen.

ULRICH LARSEN: Things always needed to end somehow, and we then went so far in the negotiations with the North Koreans … that we had to do the final agreement. And we did that in the most expensive and fantastic hotel in Denmark, the Hotel d'Angleterre.

NARRATOR: The highly illegal contracts were finalized. The next step was for the fake billionaire, Mr. James, to hand over the money - a lot of money. The deception had run its course. Mr. James would have to disappear without trace or the ruse would be exposed. 

ULRICH LARSEN: And then we just said to Jim: “Well you served three-and-a-half years on the project. Thank you very much for joining us.” And he disappeared. He just became a ghost. 

NARRATOR: With his billionaire vanishing into thin air, Ulrich now had a new challenge. How to maintain the fiction that he was genuinely trying to help de Benós and the Koreans broker an arms deal? Ulrich decided to employ what had proved to be his most powerful weapon of deception. He simply acted naïve. And it worked.

ULRICH LARSEN: So Alejandro was quite calm about it. I was like: “Well, I have met people before, like Mr. James, and they are opportunistic bastards.” And he used bad words about him. 

NARRATOR: Then, finally, after 10 years of lies, it was time for Ulrich to reveal his true motives and his true self to Alejandro, the Danish KFA, and the North Koreans. Using the pretext that he was giving a talk to a class of school kids in Copenhagen about North Korea, Ulrich invited Alejandro to join a Zoom conference call to answer any questions the students might have. Ulrich didn’t sleep much on the night before that call. 

ULRICH LARSEN: And then I just came on and it's like: “Hey, Alejandro, how are you? I need to tell you something: Why I'm so interested in North Korea, and you. I have been acting like a mole.” I told him that I have everything on tape, what I’ve been doing with him since I met up with him for the first time. And he just cut off the connection. Looking at his face today on the screen, I can still see it. I don't even need a picture of it. I can still visualize the expression on his face and the disappointment in his eyes. Ten, 20 minutes later, I was removed from KFA. I was the enemy, the man working in North Korea, in the KFA. 

NARRATOR: As you might expect, the North Koreans were anxious to speak with Ulrich. 

ULRICH LARSEN: I had more than 10 calls from the North Korean Embassy in the hours after.

NARRATOR: Ulrich didn’t answer their calls. But Ulrich and Mads had one more very important person they did need to confess to, Ulrich’s wife. She knew that Ulrich had been going on some international trips - including to North Korea - but Ulrich had told her that he was just helping out a film crew there. For an amazing total of 3,785 days - apart from his conspirators on the Brügger film project - Ulrich had kept the extent of his undercover work a complete secret from everyone, including his wife and kids. But when Mads Brügger arrived to film the final video confession to Alejandro Cao de Benós, Ulrich’s wife, sensing something big was afoot, demanded to know what was going on. With more than a little contrition, Ulrich and Mads finally ‘fessed up. 

ULRICH LARSEN: And we were literally like two schoolchildren going to the principal's office for doing the worst thing we ever did at the school. But she was, of course, surprised. She feared what would happen in the future. She was mad at me for not telling, but she understood why I couldn't tell her because that would have given her a lot of [bad] thoughts when I was gone. And if she knew she might have told somebody without knowing, telling them the things that they could use if somebody was watching. 

NARRATOR: Their marriage survived the revelation. And a few months later, Mads Brügger’s film The Mole telling Ulrich’s story, including the secret footage which Ulrich had risked his life to capture, was released. Since then, life for Ulrich and his family has been very different from how it used to be. 

ULRICH ARSEN: Going from zero messages on Twitter to 4,000 messages in one night, that's a bit weird.

NARRATOR: Not to mention the security precautions. 

ULRICH LARSEN: I had the Danish intelligence service in my home. And we change our home and got another car. When I go out to do keynote speeches or lectures, I need to have a security guard with me, securing the area. People call me ‘The Mole’ on the street. I meet a lot of nice people. Sometimes it's a bit strange to take selfies and give an autograph. Some people are nice, but some people cross a line, especially if I'm with the family and stuff. 

NARRATOR: And what does Ulrich hope that his incredible undercover work will achieve in the long run? 

ULRICH LARSEN: It's a scary place to be and I know that I will never go back, but I hope in my lifetime that the country will become a “normal” country if we can use that term. Nobody deserves to live in a regime that doesn't care for human rights. One of my greatest wishes is to go to South Korea and go up to the border, to the North, just to close the circle for me, to see it for the last time after The Mole. That would mean a lot to me to make that trip. If I made just a little hole in that Iron Curtain separating those countries, I would be very proud. 

NARRATOR: As part of his ongoing work to expose the true workings of the North Korean regime, Ulrich is available to share his inspiring and incredible tale with private audiences. You can book Ulrich Larsen at SPYEX.com. I’m Vanessa Kirby. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com

Guest Bio

Ulrich Larsen spent more than 10 years infiltrating the Korean Friendship Association so he could visit North Korea and expose its sophisticated weapons program. He teamed up with Danish documentary director Mads Brügger and recorded plans of large-scale weapon distributions, methamphetamine laboratories, and money laundering. His findings were exposed in an astonishing documentary series: The Mole: Undercover in North Korea.

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