South Korean authorities said Wednesday they had arrested two North Korean agents sent to South Korea was to assassinate Mr. Hwang, the highest-ranking North Korean official to defect. Hwang was a former top secretary of the North’s ruling Workers Party and architect of the North’s version of communist ideology.
This alleged assassination plot comes at time of worsening North-South Korean relations. On Tuesday, the South Korean cable network YTN reported that the North is preparing for a third nuclear test in May or June in defiance of a UN Security Council ban. Meanwhile, an investigation by an international team continues into who or what was responsible for the blast that sank a South Korean Navy corvette on March 26.
But the man least concerned about the alleged assassination plot may have been Hwang, who at 87 seems to have taken enough risks to be able to shrug off another threat to his life.
“Why would you be alarmed by something like that?” Hwang reportedly asked an aide after hearing news of the arrest of the two alleged would-be assassins, who made their way to South Korea four months ago posing as defectors to the South.
The two were formally charged after giving themselves away under the intense questioning by South Korean security, a process that all defectors undergo after getting to the South. They had crossed the Tumen River border into China and gone to Yangji, a major city near the border. The made their way to South Korea via Thailand, a customary defectors’ route.
There have been other reported attempts by the North to assassinate Hwang, including a similar case in 2008, when a North Korean defector was arrested, apparently in the hunt for Hwang.
Hwang, who defected to the South Korean embassy while on a mission to Beijing in February 1997, has remained an outspoken critic of Kim Jong-il, most recently during visits to the United States and Japan.
Hwang spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington early this month, where he said that “the situation on the peninsula is even worse than in the cold war era.”
A solution, he said, might lie in a campaign of “ideology and diplomacy,” including cooperation with China, as North Korea’s main ally and benefactor, in a struggle in which “we need to stand strong together.”
Hwang remarked at the time about the security provided for him during his trip, including a team of Secret Service agents guarding the room where he spoke. “I do not fear terror by Kim Jong-il,” he said, though “I do agree there should be [security] details protecting me.”
The South Korean government announced today that it will boost the number of police assigned to guard Hwang from eight to 10.
Life of servitude
Defectors have quoted Kim Jong-il as describing Hwang as “worse than a dog,” and Hwang in his remarks in Washington and elsewhere has described serving Kim as like “slave labor.”
“As secretary of the Workers’ Party, we only listened to Kim Jong-il,” he said. “He was general secretary and there were 10 secretaries. We were quite powerful, but we were high-ranked slaves. We led a life of servitude. We did not have freedom.”
Kim Jong-il is reportedly planning to visit Beijing soon. But Hwang scoffed at a question as to what he thought Kim Jong-il would tell Chinese leaders, or what they would say to him, about returning to six-party talks on the North’s nuclear program.
“I do not care anything about his trip to Beijing,” he said. “There has been a lot of hoopla we don’t need. I don’t care a bit about what they will say about six-party talks. “
Meanwhile, the investigation into the sinking of the South Korean Navy ship continues. The ship was torn in two, sending 46 sailors to their deaths, by what investigators say was an “external explosion” in disputed waters in the West or Yellow Sea. The stern of the ship is now under intense scrutiny at its home port of Pyongtaek 40 miles southwest of Seoul, and a rescue team expects to drag up the main portion of the vessel by this weekend.