By: Saira Khan
Pace International Law Review, Junior Associate
For the first time, South Korea’s intelligence service recently apprehended two North Korean spies sent to South Korea on a mission to assassinate Hwang Jang-yeop. Once a high-ranking government official, Hwang Jang-yeop was the architect behind North Korea’s “juche” or self-reliance ideology. During the Pyongyang government, Hwang Jang-yeop acted as secretary of the Worker’s Party, chairman of the national assembly, and teacher to North Korea’s present leader, Kim Jong Il. Despite his standing, Hwang Jang-yeop defected to South Korea in 1997. At eighty-seven, Hwang Jang-yeop lives under guard supervision at a secret, undisclosed address.
Despite the high security, North Korea has made many thwarted attempts at assassinating Hwang Jang-yeop. Although Hwang Jang-yeop once ranked high in the Pyongyang government, Hwang Jang-yeop is now one of its harshest critics. Many speculate that this most recent assassination attempt comes at a critical time. Hwang Jang-yeop recently made trips to the United States and Japan where he vociferously condemned the North Korean Government. On April 5, 2010, North Korea’s official website, Uriminzokkiri, issued a “death threat” to Hwang Jang-yeop in response to his disparagement remarks. The website stated “You must not forget traitors have always been slaughtered with knives.” It went on to describe Hwang Jang-yeop as a “traitor . . . who viciously slandered out dignity and system.”
Once apprehended, South Korea’s intelligence service brought the two North Korean spies before prosecutors in Seoul. Major Kim Myong-ho, thirty-six and Major Tong Myong-kwan, thirty-six were charged with violating national security and conspiracy to commit murder. According to investigators, the two North Korean spies crossed the border into China last November where they met with other agents. There, the two men received cell phones and money, provided by North Korean armed forces. Traveling through Thailand, Major Kim Myong-ho and Major Tong Myong-kwan pretended to be defectors. Eventually, the men were arrested by Thailand police who deported them to South Korea. Once brought to South Korea, the two “defectors” were questioned; there, inconsistencies in their stories emerged. One South Korean newspaper, The Chosun IIbo, reported that the two men admitted receiving orders to file reports on Hwang Jang-yeop’s whereabouts and then, as one senior South Korean prosecutor stated, “slit the betrayer’s throat.”
South Korea suspects that this is not the first time North Korea has sent assassins to kill high-profile defectors. In 1997, the year Hwang Jang-yeop defected, a relative of Kim Jong Il, who had also defected, was shot to death in front of his Seoul apartment. Although officials never caught the assassins, many believe that North Korean agents were responsible. As for Hwang Jang-yeop, he remains vigilant about his safety. It is reported that Hwang Jang-yeop does not drink water provided to him when making public speeches criticizing North Korea for fear that it could be poisoned. Despite that, Hwang Jang-yeop has said that living under round the clock security in Seoul is better than “a life of servitude as a high-ranked slave in Pyongyang.”
Some South Koreans question the timing of the assassination attempt. Last month a South Korean naval vessel sank, killing forty-six on board. Many South Koreans believe that the Pyongyang Government played a part in the event. The naval vessel sank close to a maritime boarder that North Korea continues to dispute. Investigators believe the ship sank as a result of an “external explosion;” however, investigators have not confirmed the cause of the blast or North Korea’s involvement. Nevertheless, some in Seoul suspect a torpedo sank the vessel.