Features | Society | East Asia

North Korea’s Clumsy Assassins

News last month that an alleged North Korean spy tried to kill an anti-Pyongyang activist is a reminder that Kim Jong-il’s spies are active. But some say the attacks aren’t what they used to be.

By Bryan Kay for

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.

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.’

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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.’

In the frontier region, where China and the promise of freedom beckon, Green’s newspaper maintains a network of correspondents who operate as shadowy figures of a different kind, working to uncover information impossible to obtain by conventional news-gathering means.  There, he describes a scene of instability, infused by North Korea ‘fighting a losing battle to control the influx of information and illicit trade, at least that which it doesn’t control.’

There have been some deadly results lately of this instability. Around the same time of the poison pen plot in Seoul, two activists were targeted in separate incidents involving poison-tipped needles in Dandong and Yanji, towns on the Chinese side of the border. One died; the other escaped and survived.

Spooked, others have taken note. Peters, a frequent traveller to the region, says aid workers are now being ‘extremely prudent and cautious in their movements and communications.’

‘The death of the missionary in Dandong, and the near-death incident in Yanji, are very grave reminders of the vulnerable, unprotected nature of the humanitarian work in this region,’ he says. ‘These agents appear to be operating almost unhindered in the border region, and such conditions can only be very unsettling for humanitarian workers there.’

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Green says the North may be motivated by the rise of Kim Jong-il’s son and reputed successor as leader, Kim Jong-un.  Peters agrees. But he also sees years of work by like-minded missionaries and activists as having had ‘considerable impact’ in North Korea. The assassination attempts are, he says, ‘the clumsy responses’ of a desperate state apparatus. Unrepentant, Peters says his work – and likely that of many others – to help North Koreans will continue.

For Kim Shin-jo, meanwhile, news of foiled plots and apparent assassinations only serve to bring back painful memories. In the past, he has spoken about his feelings of guilt at surviving when other commandos in his hit team were killed. There have also been melancholic moments fuelled by lingering suspicion in the South that he isn’t the reformed character popularly depicted. Occupying a tragic backdrop to the entire narrative of his journey, though, is loss.  After pursuing South Korean citizenship, he was presented with news the parents he left behind in the North had been killed in retribution.

Still, these days Kim is outwardly at least an ardent critic of the North Korean regime, acting as an advisor to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s ruling Grand National Party on North Korean human rights issues. Yet, without making specific reference to the recent case in Seoul, he speaks sympathetically about the fate of suspects accused of acting as Northern hitmen. After his own capture and a year of interrogation, he was released into South Korean society, a man apparently transformed, relinquishing his communist ideology in favour of the principles espoused by his captors. He received a pardon – supposedly because he was found not to have fired his gun – and was later granted South Korean citizenship. He went on to marry a South Korean, turned to Christianity and had a family.

Sharing a similar military background to Kim, the Seoul poison-pen suspect, identified only by the family name An, was described by Southern officials as a former North Korean special forces soldier. Authorities said An was granted asylum in the late 1990s, raising questions over whether or not he had initially been a genuine defector, then later became the victim of coercion. The circumstances in the An case remain unclear, but Kim opens the door to one possible scenario facing suspects like him, where the life or death of loved ones back home may be the cornerstone of a motivation to act.

‘In general, these defectors usually act out of fear for their lives and for their families’ lives back in North Korea,’ Kim says. ‘That doesn’t make it right. These individuals broke the law and should be punished. But not harshly.’

Indeed, he goes further. ‘Should they repent and start to see the error of their ways,’ Kim adds, they should ‘be forgiven and eventually pardoned.’

Bryan Kay is a freelance journalist who covers the Koreas for the Christian Science Monitor and the Sunday Herald in Scotland. He has also written for the Independent on Sunday, the New Statesman and the International Herald Tribune.