- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 21, 2010

SEOUL (AP) — Posing as refugees, a pair of North Korean spies made their way to South Korea with a mission to assassinate the regime’s most high-profile defector — a man who once mentored leader Kim Jong-Il, authorities said Wednesday.

Hwang Jang-yop, chief architect of North Korea’s guiding “juche” philosophy of self-reliance, was one of North Korea’s most powerful officials when he fled the impoverished nation 13 years ago in a defection that reportedly enraged Mr. Kim.

This week, two North Korean army majors were arrested on suspicion of plotting to kill the 87-year-old Mr. Hwang, the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office said Wednesday.

The two, both 36, confessed to investigators that they were ordered to report back on Mr. Hwang’s activities and to prepare to “slit the betrayer’s throat,” a senior prosecutor said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.

The arrests Tuesday come as tensions escalate over the sinking of a South Korean warship that mysteriously exploded last month near the North Korean border. Speculation is mounting that Pyongyang may have been behind the blast.

Mr. Hwang, who lives with around-the-clock police protection because of concerns about North Korean attempts on his life, shrugged off the arrests and said they did not intimidate him, the Yonhap news agency said, citing an unidentified acquaintance.

“I called Hwang after watching news of the agents’ arrest, but he told me, ‘Why are you concerned about such a thing?’” the report quoted the friend as saying.

The arrests of the North Koreans are the first in connection with a plot against the man who once was a close confidant of Mr. Kim’s, the prosecutor said. Mr. Hwang worked as Mr. Kim’s private tutor on his “juche” philosophy, according to South Korean media reports.

The men, identified as Kim Myong-ho and Dong Myong-kwan, made their way from Yanji, China, to Thailand posing as defectors. Thai authorities deported one to South Korea in January, the other in February, the prosecutor said.

The two were arrested after their mission emerged during questioning about their motives for defecting, he said.

One of the suspects attempted suicide during questioning but wasn’t seriously hurt, prosecution spokesman Oh Se-in said. Mr. Oh gave no further details.

A spokesman at the National Intelligence Service confirmed the arrests but didn’t provide additional details. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing office policy.

They could face the death penalty if convicted of violating the National Security Law.

North and South Korea have remained locked in a state of war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce but not a peace treaty.

Since then, North Korea has waged a number of attacks against South Korea, often relying on a network of spies.

In 1968, 31 North Korean commandos infiltrated Seoul and tried to storm South Korea’s presidential Blue House but failed to assassinate President Park Chung-hee. His wife was shot to death in a second assassination attempt on Park’s life in 1974.

In 1969, a spy hijacked a South Korean airliner and took dozens of people hostage. The bombing of an airliner in 1987 killed 115 people on board, and a female North Korean spy confessed to the plot. In 1983, North Korean agents masterminded a bombing when then-South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan was visiting Burma. Mr. Chun was unhurt but 21 others were killed.

High-profile defectors are also key targets. In 1997, a nephew of one of Mr. Kim’s former wives was killed outside a Seoul apartment, 15 years after defecting to the South. Officials never caught the assailants but believe they were North Korean agents.

Mr. Kim reportedly has vowed payback for Mr. Hwang’s defection.

Mr. Hwang, a former secretary of the North’s ruling Workers Party, has written books and delivered lectures condemning Mr. Kim’s totalitarian regime.

Speaking to journalists and academics in Washington late last month, he said he made the decision to flee the North after Mr. Kim’s policies led to mass starvation in the mid-1990s. He said he has no regrets about his decision.

“Everybody other than (leader) Kim Jong-il in North Korea are slaves, serfs,” Mr. Hwang said through an interpreter at the time. He said change can come only through diplomacy and economic means, not military force.

Mr. Hwang’s criticism is a “burden for Kim Jong-il and annoyed him because Hwang is a man who knows well about him and was a key figure” in the North, said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor at Korea University. “For Kim Jong-il, it would have been necessary to punish a betrayer like him to send a message to North Korea’s elite.”

It was Mr. Hwang’s second trip to the United States. Previous South Korean governments restricted Mr. Hwang’s trips over concerns that his criticism of North Korea could complicate efforts to reconcile with Pyongyang and for fears he would be a target for assassination.

South Korea’s current government lifted the ban, calling it a human rights violation.

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