To the unsuspecting eye, 71-year-old Kim Shin-jo blends in easily with life in the greater Seoul area – no more conspicuous than the local bank teller, post office clerk or parents dropping off their children at school.With his salt-and-pepper hair neatly folded in a classic comb-over, usually accompanied by freshly pressed cords and an open-collared shirt, he looks every inch the archetypal South Korean grandfather.
But for South Koreans of a certain age, the sight of recently retired pastor Kim is enough to quickly mute the conversations of those around him as their minds are forced back to the day, more than four decades ago, that they first encountered this then baby-faced man. But more than his appearance, they will likely be remembering the chilling words he spoke: ‘I came here to cut Park Chung-hee’s throat.’
Kim was a would-be assassin, sent to kill the then-South Korean president. It was January 1968, and Kim was being presented to the nation live on TV. He had just been captured after a bloody, days-long chase, and was the only one of 31 North Korean commandos captured alive by South Korean authorities.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Kim’s journey may seem like the kind of horror story consigned to the annals of Cold War history. But recently, South Koreans have been forced to re-confront some old truths involving the brutal world of secret agents. Covered in the national media with headlines that sent a collective shudder down the spine of the nation, in late September it emerged a man allegedly posing as a North Korean defector had attempted to murder a high-profile anti-Pyongyang activist in Seoul using poison-tipped pens – on the orders of the North. It’s an incident, say experienced observers, which presents a timely reminder that North Korean spies still operate in their midst.
According to Kim, this murky face of North Korea never lurks far from the lives of ordinary Southerners. ‘North Korea’s purpose is to make South Korea a part of their communistic regime, so they will send assassins either in the form of a defector or something else,’ he says. ‘I think as long as Kim Jong-il and the communist party is in power, there’ll probably be agents in Korea.’
Last year, two men were sentenced to 10 years each in prison for plotting to kill the now deceased Hwang Jang-yop – the most high-profile defector from the North and former senior regime member. Another individual received 10 years in jail in connection with another plot to kill Hwang.
But some activists argue that although the North’s agents may still circulate in significant numbers south of the border, they lack the direction and focus that once marked the ominous reach of Pyongyang. ‘It’s very difficult to accurately assess the threat of a lethal attack in the South,’ says Seoul-based North Korea human rights activist Tim Peters. ‘By some estimates, the North may have informants and agents here in the South that number in the thousands.
‘On the other hand, the type of mortal attacks, such as the one recently carried out but thwarted in its final stage on North Korean human rights activist Park Sung-hak, have tended to be rather rare,’ he says.
Peters is the founder of Helping Hands Korea, an organization that helps spirit defectors out of the North. ‘Those setting these plots into motion in Pyongyang seemed, in the past, to have a rather sophisticated calculus for choosing targets for their perfidy. These days, though, this type of attack seems to be more of a blunt instrument, and certainly more clumsy.’
Some go further. Chris Green, international affairs manager at the Daily NK, a dissident online newspaper based in Seoul, reckons the threat in the South, as much as it exists, is low. ‘Bluff and bluster are the order of the day,’ he says. ‘As far as there are multiple agencies from North Korea operating in the (North Korean-Chinese) border area under the guise of trading groups attached to a multitude of shady North Korean government organs, the risk there is much higher.’