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Analysis | A not-that-short history of North Korean assassinations and attempts

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 15-02-2017 Anna Fifield
Kim Jong Nam, shown at left in 2001, was the exiled half-brother of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, © AP Kim Jong Nam, shown at left in 2001, was the exiled half-brother of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un,

TOKYO — The North Korean regime is widely being blamed for ordering the sensational assassination this week of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged older half-brother of leader Kim Jong Un.

Kim Jong Nam was attacked by two women, believed to be North Korean agents, at Kuala Lumpur airport on Monday morning as he was checking in for a flight to Macau. One grabbed him while the other covered his face with some kind of liquid. He died on the way to the hospital.

Of course, the regime in Pyongyang hasn’t commented. But analysts say that the bizarre incident — which reads like something out of a spy novel — bears all the hallmarks of a North Korean hit.

The totalitarian regime makes no bones about getting rid of its enemies — sometimes through traditional purges and executions in North Korea, sometimes through mysterious car crashes in a country with almost no traffic. And sometimes with plots that would make James Bond proud.

Here are some other assassinations or attempts associated with the Kim regime.

1968: The January 21 Incident

On Jan. 21, 1968, a hand-picked team of 31 North Korean commandos known as Unit 124 was dispatched to South Korea with one task: getting into the presidential Blue House and killing President Park Chung-hee.

But four teenage South Korean brothers, out collecting firewood in the hills north of Seoul, stumbled upon the commandos’ camp.

“Amazingly, instead of ruthlessly disposing of their four unwelcome guests, the officer in charge of Unit 124 arrived at a bewildering decision: the prisoners would be persuaded of the virtues of communism and set free,” recounts the website MilitaryHistoryNow.com.

Of course, the brothers immediately found a police station, and a massive manhunt began.

The commandos, wearing South Korean military uniforms, managed to get within 100 yards of the Blue House before being intercepted. Most of them were killed in the gunfight that ensued, but one was arrested and another escaped, only to kill himself with a hand grenade.

About two dozen South Koreans and four American soldiers were also killed in the incident.

Park Chung-hee, father of current president Park Geun-hye, wanted revenge and ordered a retaliatory raid on Kim Il Sung in North Korea, but it never eventuated.

1983: Rangoon bombing

Three North Korean agents hid a bomb in the Martyrs' Mausoleum in Rangoon, the capital of Burma, on Oct. 9, 1983, before then-South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan was due to lay a wreath there.

But the president’s motorcade was late and the agents mistakenly set off the bomb a few minutes before he arrived, killing 17 South Korean officials, including four government ministers and two top presidential aides.

Japanese and South Korean analysts said the bombing was probably planned by Kim Jong Il, the son and heir apparent to North Korean President Kim Il Sung.

“Although they lack hard evidence, they say that the breadth of the plot as it has been unfolded in a Burmese courtroom and the connections it required point to the involvement of officials high in the North Korean government,” The Washington Post reported at the time.

1996: Diplomat killed in apparent revenge attack

Choi Duk-keun, a South Korean diplomat stationed in the Russian Far East city of Vladivostok was killed outside his apartment in October 1996, with the official cause of death attributed to being bludgeoned.

But he had two small holes on his body, consistent with being poisoned, and he was later discovered to have the same kind of poison in his bloodstream as was carried by North Korean commandos whose submarine had run aground in South Korea the month before.

The commandos slipped ashore, some disguised in South Korean uniforms, but 22 of the 26 were killed, and Pyongyang had vowed revenge.

North Korea denied involvement in his killing. “South Korea is framing a despicable plot to link our country” to the assassination, the state-run newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, reported.

Choi was listed officially as a cultural attache at the South Korean consulate in Vladivostok, not far from the Russian border with North Korea.

“But practically everyone in the tiny community of diplomats here knew that Choi Duk Keun's work had little to do with opera and ballet,” The Washington Post reported at the time. “Like the handful of other South Korean consular officials in Vladivostok, he spent much of his time monitoring the several thousand North Koreans living in the region, one of the largest concentrations of North Koreans anywhere outside their homeland.”

1997: Family under fire

A member of the extended Kim family was shot in the head by North Korean assassins on the street in 1997.

Yi Han-yong was the cousin of Kim Jong Nam — his mother was Song Hye Rang, the sister of Kim Jong Nam's mother, Song Hye Rim. Song Hye Rim’s relationship with Kim Jong Il, the second-generation leader of North Korea, was a secret and so too was the child’s existence.

Yi was studying in Switzerland in 1982 when he defected to South Korea, the highest-level North Korean to flee at that time.

He initially went to great lengths to disguise his true identity, changing his name and reportedly even having plastic surgery, but in 1996, facing financial troubles, he started to cash in on his family connections. He sold his story to South Korean media outlets and wrote a book, “Kim Jong Il’s Royal Family.”

In February 1997, he was outside his apartment in Bundang, just south of Seoul, when two men, believed to be North Korean agents, shot him in the head. He later died in a hospital.

His killing was “perhaps as a warning to Secretary Hwang Jang-yop, who had just defected to the South,” Ralph C. Hassig and Kong Dan Oh wrote in their book, “The Hidden People of North Korea.”

2009: Highest-level defector

Pyongyang is said to have ordered the killing of Hwang Jang-yop, who had been secretary of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party until he defected in 1997.

He had sought asylum at the South Korean embassy in Beijing, becoming the highest-level defector from North Korea.

North Korean agents were said to have posed as defectors and then, once in the South, to have recruited three South Koreans in 2009 to manufacture drugs and assassinate Hwang, who had been highly critical of the regime in Pyongyang.

They were said to have been paid about $40,000 to kill Hwang, who was living under tight security because the South Korean government expected North Korea to try to kill him.

But the plot never materialized as Hwang, then age 87, died of natural causes in 2010.

The South Koreans were arrested and put on trial, and the two North Korean agents were sentenced to 10 years in prison for plotting to kill Hwang. Pyongyang denied any involvement.

2011: Silencing a critic

A defector to South Korea — later alleged to have been a secret North Korean agent — was arrested in 2011 for trying to assassinate Park Sang-hak, another defector who had turned into an outspoken critic of the regime in Pyongyang.

The agent, identified as An, had asked to meet Park at a subway station in southern Seoul and planned to kill him with a poison pen. But Park was tipped off by South Korea’s national intelligence service, who swept in to capture An.

“An told me by phone that he was to be accompanied by a visitor from Japan who wants to help our efforts. But then I was told by the NIS not to go to the meeting due to the risk of assassination,” Australian radio quoted Park as saying at the time. “Following advice from intelligence authorities and police, I don’t see any strangers these days.”

Park is still active in South Korea today, organizing the launches of balloons carrying anti-regime leaflets into North Korea.

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