If North Korea’s Attempt to Kill Hwang Jang Yop Isn’t the State Sponsorship of Terrorism, I Don’t Know What Is

Two North Korean agents sent to South Korea to assassinate Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking official ever to defect from Pyongyang, have been arrested, intelligence and law enforcement authorities announced yesterday.

According to the National Intelligence Service and prosecutors, Kim Yong-ho, 36, and Dong Myong-gwan, 36, have been arrested. Both men were majors of the North Korean Army’s reconnaissance bureau, the authorities said.

The two agents were ordered in November by the bureau’s chief, Colonel General Kim Yong-chol, to assassinate Hwang, the former secretary of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party. [Joongang Ilbo]

According to the Chosun Ilbo, which has more on the Reconnaissance Bureau, the spies had orders to “cut Hwang’s head off.” The AP, quoting an anonymous prosecutor, reports that the instruction was to “slit the betrayer’s throat.”

As North Korean spies have often done in recent years, Kim and Dong posed as defectors; in this case, they came to South Korea via Thailand. This time, however, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service smelled a rat, and the two men confessed under questioning. The hunt is now on for the spies’ contacts in South Korea.

AFP puts the new revelation into the context of North Korea’s recent threats against Hwang.

You can find the legal definition of “international terrorism” at this section of the U.S. Criminal Code. The procedure for listing a government as a state sponsor of terrorism can be found here.

The assassins were trained in the Peoples’ Republic of China, which has long tolerated the presence of North Korean spies on its soil. Frankly, that may be the most sensational part of this entire story; after all, North Korea has assassinated people on South Korean soil before. I can’t foresee much support in Washington for the idea of listing China as a state sponsor of terrorism, but I certainly hope — this being an election year and all — that some members of Congress will hold hearings and ask the Congressional Research Service to investigate the question of what the Chinese government knew about the training and the plot. At a minimum, China’s support for the North Korean intelligence services is a crime against humanity, and China ought to pay a much higher price for it.

16 Comments

  1. Am I the only one who’s skeptical about this? If the North Koreans really wanted to whack HJY, they would have simply done what the Israelis did in Dubai: forged fake passports, entered the country on tourist visas, and executed the mission. If the two operatives were supposed to establish deep cover, it would make a lot more sense to use the refugee route, but for a job like this, exposing your operatives to ROK intelligence questioning is not something I’d imagine the North Koreans doing.

    The only rationale for such a roundabout way of infiltration for a job like this would be to make it look like an accident. I find that highly unlikely though – you don’t go after a high profile like HJY unless you want to send a clear message, and an “accidental death” would simply dilute that message.

    Sounds like something remarkably similar to this.




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  2. Under the reports link Hwang says this:

    “Hwang said that change in the North can come only through diplomacy and economic means, not military force. ”

    —–

    Eh??




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  3. That Joongang article simply mentions “trained in China” without providing any details. Chosun Ilbo had a better account of the alleged activities of the two:

    Kim and Tong arrived in Yanji in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in the Chinese province of Jilin after crossing the North Korea-China border in November last year. They met up with other North Korean agents and received mobile phones and operational funds at a liaison office of the Reconnaissance Bureau there.

    Apparently there are known NK intelligence agencies located in China. I too, wonder how much the Chinese government knows about it. I don’t think they are very pleased.




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  4. Theresa Hwang is a shady figure. He is still a Kim Il Sung sympathist and highly suspected Juche follower. His only qualms about the DPRK seem to be the rule of Kim jong Il the son.




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  5. Then again, his original homeland is the DPRK so it would make sense that he would not like to see military action there.




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  6. Joshua, strictly speaking, would the murder of Hwang Jang-yop be an act of terrorism? Or simply a politically motivated assassination?

    Terrorism is generally understood as a violent attack on innocent civilians carried out in order to terrorize the larger population and thereby apply pressure on that population’s government to change some policy that the terrorists disapprove of.

    Would the killing of Hwang have had such a terrorizing effect and such a political aim?

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    [Did you read the statute I linked? Plenty of people like to redefine terrorism in ways that fit their own political agendas, which is why I like the consistency of a statutory definition. To answer your next question, Hwang is almost 90. He probably doesn’t give a damn if someone off him now. The entire idea of assassinating him would be to show the 18,000 North Korean defectors in the South that Kim Jong Il can get to anyone who opposes him, or who advocates ideas as dangerous (to KJI) as this. – Joshua]




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  7. Hwang Jang Yop defected in 1997, over a dozen years ago… so, what, it took North Korea 13 years to find him and send guys to kill him? Why the wait? Did he only just recently say something that hacked KJI off enough to send in the assassins? Were they waiting for him to let his guard down or something?




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  8. Skippy, this is a shot in the dark but I would postulate that this attempt is another attempt to legitimize Kim Jong Eun. Being able to put “responsible for the death of the most prominent defector from the DPRK” on your resume might give you even more clout at the NDC.




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  9. a listener wrote:

    Theresa Hwang is a shady figure.

    This sentence needs a comma. I thought you were dissing our Theresa.

    He is still a Kim Il Sung sympathist and highly suspected Juche follower. His only qualms about the DPRK seem to be the rule of Kim jong Il the son.

    I have serious qualms about Mr Hwang myself, especially when he talks up human rights, but he may be better equipped than anyone else we’ve got to know what will erode the power of the regime. Right or wrong, some people believe(d) in engagement not as a way to prop up the regime but to transform it, and it would hardly surprise me if he’s one of them.




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  10. The Juche cult wants to kill HJY because he wants to kill the Juche regime. He argues for ideological overthrow, and not combat. I suspect as the architect of much of Juche’s KJI era religion, that he still believes what is practiced in NK today is a ‘distortion’ of ‘pure Jucheism’. That aside, I agree that the way to remove the regime is to debunk Jucheism.

    Hwang isn’t just the highest level defector; he’s the high priest of Juche and as such must be made an example for other antiJucheists. Whether that amounts to terrorism or not, it certainly has massive symbolic value.




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  11. “Hwang Jang Yop defected in 1997, over a dozen years ago… so, what, it took North Korea 13 years to find him and send guys to kill him? Why the wait? Did he only just recently say something that hacked KJI off enough to send in the assassins? Were they waiting for him to let his guard down or something? ”

    I think these are very good, central questions, along with the question as to how these spies could be dumb enough to openly reveal their target during defector questioning. It would force a reasonable person to wonder if killing Hwang was NOT the primary purpose of their mission.




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  12. “Hwang Jang Yop defected in 1997, over a dozen years ago… so, what, it took North Korea 13 years to find him and send guys to kill him?

    Kim Jong Il is said to have “accepted” Hwang’s defection back in 1997, but not before North Korean special agents killed another prominent defector living in Bundang. Having met Mr. Hwang in person a few years back, I can report that he is surrounded by body guards at all times and doesn’t stay in one place too long.

    Agreed with Joshua. If this isn’t state-sponsored terrorism, then I don’t know what is…well, maybe an unprovoked sneak torpedo attack on a military warship in peacetime. Speaking of which, South Korean military intelligence has announced that they are “certain” North Korea was behind the attack after a review of South Korean and American intelligence reports. In fact, they had been warning about a North Korean retaliatory strike on a South Korean warship since February.




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  13. JW said:

    “I think these are very good, central questions, along with the question as to how these spies could be dumb enough to openly reveal their target during defector questioning. It would force a reasonable person to wonder if killing Hwang was NOT the primary purpose of their mission. ”


    Good point.
    ——-
    Kushibo responded to::

    Theresa Hwang is a shady figure.

    “This sentence needs a comma. I thought you were dissing our Theresa.”
    —–

    Thanks. I didn’t take offense at it. My last name isn’t Hwang, if that’s how you thought it read.

    🙂




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  14. Joshua, thanks for drawing my attention to the link, the relevant part defining terrorism as intended:

    (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
    (ii) to influence the policy of a government by
    intimidation or coercion; or
    (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass
    destruction, assassination, or kidnapping;

    That fits more or less with my own working definition. I take “civilian” population to refer to the larger civilian population of a nation (though the language is somewhat imprecise), so I still think that the threat to Hwang was more a political assassination attempt than an attempted terrorist act.

    Jeffery Hodges

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  15. Well I am not saying that the Chinese are right but the US did provide a little group called the Taliban with weapons and training back in the 80’s.
    Calling the Chinese a state sponsor of terror then you will have to call every western country a state sponsor as well, because a lot of countries have sponsored terror it just happens to be they think they are backing the right country at the time.
    Also no country would annoy the 4th largest army in the world that they share a boarder with inless they had to. Not even South Korea really trys to annoy the North.

    [You’re in way over your head, Gov. There was no such thing as the Taliban before 1993. We supported the Mujaheddin, who were overthrown by the Taliban years after we ended our assistance and forgot about Afghanistan. The Mujaheddin were fighting against a brutal Soviet occupation that intentionally made war against the civilian population of Afghanistan and killed 2 million people. – Joshua]




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