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N. Korean defectors under threat of assassination

Oct. 12, 2011 - 15:49 By
Well-developed covert weapons seized from operatives caught plotting to kill those who fled North Korea

Park Sang-hak, an outspoken anti-Pyongyang activist, left his reclusive country, North Korea, in 2000 to seek freedom in the capitalist South, but he is anything but free when he leaves his house for daily activities.

A recent target of assassination by North Korea, Park is protected and watched by several police officers and guards throughout the day.

Park is among the eight North Korean defectors considered “most wanted” by Pyongyang’s Kim Jong-il regime.

In need of full support by its people as he hands over his impoverished country to his youngest son Jong-un, the North Korean leader is expected to seek harsher revenge on high profile defectors such as Park, Seoul officials say.

“Eliminating a defector is apparently the best way of warning its people against fleeing from the country,” a South Korean official said on the condition of anonymity.

Earlier this month, the Seoul Central Prosecutors Office charged a North Korean agent with trying to assassinate Park with a poison-tipped needle.

The agent, identified only as An, was in possession of the weapon when he was arrested on Sept. 3. An had asked Park to meet him at a subway station in Seoul, claiming he could help him financially in sending propaganda leaflets to Pyongyang, according to prosecutors.

Park, who is involved in launching cross-border leaflets fiercely critical of the North’s regime, has said the plot against his life was foiled by the South’s intelligence officials who told him to stay away.

An, a former North Korean special forces commando in his 40s, came to the South in the late 1990s posing as a defector.

Carrying two poison needle guns and three poison capsules upon his arrest, An said he was “threatened” by the North Korean regime, which said it would kill the agent’s family if he did not follow the order. 
Poison needle guns possessed by a North Korean agent who tried to assassinate an outspoken anti-Pyongyang activist last month. (Yonhap News)

An received $12,000 to work on the assassination plan. The poison An carried was strong enough to immediately kill a person by inducing a heart attack, investigators said.

The leaflet launches by Park and other activists infuriate the North, which has threatened to open fire across the border at the dispatch sites.

North Korea, one of the world’s most secretive and totalitarian states, keeps its people largely isolated from outside news and strictly forbids them from possessing goods that are not distributed by the ruling Workers’ Party.

Although activists rarely reveal the exact contents of the balloons, they are believed to contain consumer goods and anti-communist books and video tapes, along with leaflets to rattle Pyongyang.

Regardless of the apparent threats for his life, Park sent another batch of leaflets across the border this week, calling the activity his “duty” to let the North Koreans know the truth about their leader.

In January, a court jailed a North Korean spy for 10 years for plotting to assassinate Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking defector ever to flee to the South. In July last year, two other North Korean spies were sentenced to 10 years in prison for plotting to murder Hwang.

Making several narrow escapes from such agents sent to kill him, Hwang died of natural causes at his closely guarded home last year at the age of 87.

In 1997, Lee Han-young, a nephew of Sung Hye-rim ― the deceased first wife of Kim Jong-il ― was shot dead outside his apartment in South Korea.

The death of Lee, who heatedly criticized the North Korean elite and exposed the secrets of the Kim family in a memoir, remains a mystery as of today. The bullets found in his body were those frequently used by North Korean spies, investigators have said.

Lee Min-bok, a North Korean defector who heads a Christian group of refugees and also leads a campaign sending propaganda leaflets to North Korea, is another “assassination target” under protection by the South Korean police.

“It is important to stay alert of people you don’t know,” Lee told local media.

Kim Sung-min, head of Free North Korea Radio and one of the closest confidants of the late Hwang Jang-yop, said he has been “constantly threatened” by the North Korean regime since he started airing news in 2004.

North Korea “threatened to blow up the building,” said Kim, adding police increased the number of officers protecting him from three to four amid the growing terror threats against defectors.

Cho Myung-chul, who was in June named the head of the Education Center for Unification, the highest government post to be taken by a North Korean defector, is another person North Korea has its eyes on.

“Chairman Cho has become somewhat of a symbol as the first defector to be named a senior South Korean official,” an unnamed Seoul official said.

Cho, who defected in 1994, was formerly a professor at North Korea’s top Kim Il Sung University.

An alerting development is the growing number of spies who are disguising themselves as ordinary defectors, officials say.

Recent state data show that some 200 supposed North Korean defectors returned to their country as of last year, many of them suspected to be agents sent by the regime.

With the number of defectors is growing fast, it is becoming more difficult to gauge their intentions thoroughly, officials say. One policeman manages between 50 and 70 defectors due to the lack of manpower in the area.

Nearly 22,000 North Koreans are known to have defected here since the Korean War, braving the dangerous escape from the regime and its fierce crackdowns as well as China, which as a policy repatriates North Koreans despite the harsh punishment that awaits them.

Seoul believes tens of thousands of North Koreans are currently hiding in China for the chance to cross the border for freedom in the South. The Unification Ministry, which specializes in affairs with Pyongyang, expects at least 3,000 more North Korean defectors to come to the South by the end of this year.

By Shin Hae-in (