By William Tucker
Shifting through North Korean news can be at once torturous and humorous. On the one hand, international concern over the upcoming rocket launch has come to dominate headlines, but this news is coming on the heels of the reported discovery of a unicorn lair and the mistaken thought that a U.S. publication had seriously spent time extolling the physical virtues of Kim Jong-un. North Korean missile and nuclear tests are certainly cause for concern, but they are geared primarily toward opening negotiations with the U.S. and its allies in the region, as well as demonstrating to the North Korean population the continued capabilities of the state. This missile launch is claimed to be for placing a satellite into orbit and is reported to be in honor of Kim Jong-il, the former leader of North Korea who passed away one year ago. Of equal concern to North Korean watchers is the continuing intelligence activities by Pyongyang that complicate regional stability.
As evidence of such activity, South Korea recently sentenced a North Korean assassin who was trying to kill a high-profile defector. Defectors and refugees from the North are an embarrassment to the regime in Pyongyang, and the government of Kim Jong-un will go to great lengths to silence its critics. So much so that Jong-un has twice tried to have his older half brother, Kim Jong-nam, killed abroad. To further emphasize the length to which Pyongyang will go, the first attempt on Kim Jong-nam occurred in China – a long time North Korean friend and ally. This most recent attempt used the long time North Korean method of smuggling operatives abroad using refugee groups as cover. In most cases, refugees leaving the North will go to China and then try to make their way to yet another nation before requesting political asylum. Once this happens, Seoul moves to situate the refugees in South Korea. Seoul is well aware of the North’s modus operandi for moving some of its intelligence assets and has a screening procedure in place to weed out potential threats. Obviously, this isn’t a foolproof method and Seoul is continuously refining its screening methods.
The assassins target was Park Sang-hak, a well known North Korean defector who sends notes across the DMZ disparaging the North’s communist regime. The North’s population is cut off from most forms of communication with the outside world making Park’s political activities rather provocative in the eyes of Pyongyang. The assassin, known only as An, planned to use a specially developed needle to inject Park with a powerful muscle relaxer that would cause death in minutes. Using his cover as a fellow North Korean defector to get close to Park, An was planning on a using a “brush” or “bump” technique to inject the toxin. South Korean counterintelligence disrupted the plot before it was executed. Considering the amount of time and effort that North Korea put into this plot suggests that they will try to kill Park again in the future.