South Korea arrests alleged spies from the North

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South Korea says it caught two spies from North Korea, sent to kill a prominent defector from the North. The World's Matthew Bell reports on rising tensions between the Koreas.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. South Korean officials have arrested two North Koreans. The two men were allegedly planning to assassinate Hwang Jong Yop. Hwang is an 87-year-old former North Korean official who escaped to South Korea 13 years ago. He's also an outspoken critic of the North Korean regime. Here's The World's Matthew Bell.

MATTHEW BELL: The details of the story first came from South Korean news reports quoting government officials and here's how it goes: two North Korean agents crossed the border into China some time in the last few months. Then they traveled the well worn path for people who escape North Korea by going to Thailand. They posed as asylum seekers looking for permission to defect to South Korea, but the two were exposed as North Korean spies during interrogations by South Korean intelligence. They admitted to being ordered to kill Hwang Jang Yop. At that point they tried to commit suicide, but were prevented from doing so and they remain in South Korean custody. That's the gist of the story as it's been reported so far. If the plot was genuine, it wouldn't be the first of its kind. North Korean agents were suspected of killing another prominent defector in South Korea in 1997. But Hwang Jang Yop, the alleged target in this case, is a uniquely attractive target from the North's perspective. Michael Green is a Korea expert at Georgetown University.

MICHAEL GREEN: He is by far the most senior defector they've ever had. He was in the inner circle, he was in charge of propaganda. His defection was an enormous embarrassment for the regime. His life has been in danger since he left.

BELL: In the decades that followed, the Korean War, Hwang rose through the ranks of the Korean Workers' Party. He was one of the architects of Korea's so-called juche ideology, loosely translated as collective self-reliance. For a long time after he defected to South Korea, the government there kept him out of the spotlight. But in recent years, Hwang has become more vocal. He's leveled blistering criticism of the North Korean regime, of the dear leader Kim Jong Il himself, and Kim's son and presumed successor, Kim Jong Un. For example, during a rare appearance here in the U.S. last month, Michael Green says Hwang was asked about the younger Kim.

GREEN: And his answer was I'm not going to talk about that little jerk. The Korean word was even worse, but this is public radio.

BELL: Hwang has made comments like these many times in the past. Green says it must drive the North Koreans crazy.

GREEN: In North Korea you can be imprisoned for taking a magazine with a picture of the dear leader and turning it face down on the table. So the cultive personality, the God-like worship of Kim Jong Il is incredibly important to the regime and if Kim Jong Un is going to be the successor they're going to have to transfer that same God-like cultive personality to the son.

BELL: Green says the assassination plot could be just the latest in a series of provocative actions by North Korea. Last month a South Korean warship went down along with 46 sailors near the border with the North. Officials in the South say the damage might have been caused by a North Korean torpedo. The North has denied responsibility but the incident puts pressure on South Korea's government to respond. David Straub is a Korea expert at Stanford University. He says even if the North is found to be responsible for sinking the warship, South Korea is unlikely to react militarily.

DAVID STRAUB: I think South Korea will very carefully consider the situation and use this as an opportunity to expose to the world the nature of the North Korean regime.

BELL: Straub says the reported details of the assassination plot appear to be credible and it's a reminder of how the North Korean regime deals with those it views are traitors.

STRAUB: Hwang Jang Yop was very close to Kim Il Sun and Kim Jong Il, personally. So his defection and especially his outspokenness after his defection over the past decade, I'm sure has been taken by Kim Jong Il and the people around him as a personal betrayal.

BELL: And for that reason, Straub suspects that the orders to kill Hwang Jong Yop came from on high. For The World, I'm Matthew Bell.