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Authorities arrested two North Koreans for posing as defectors to South Korea and plotting to assassinate the highest ranking North Korean official ever to defect to Seoul, officials said Wednesday.
Hwang Jang-yop, a former secretary of the North's ruling Workers Party - who once mentored leader Kim Jong Il - defected to the South in 1997. He has written books and delivered lectures condemning Kim's regime as totalitarian and now lives under police protection 24 hours a day to prevent North Korean attempts on his life.
The arrest came as tensions escalated after a South Korean warship mysteriously exploded and sank last month near the North Korean border. Speculation is mounting that Pyongyang may be behind the blast.
On Tuesday, Seoul prosecutors arrested two North Korean army majors for entering South Korea by posing as ordinary defectors with an alleged mission to kill the 87-year-old Hwang, according to Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office.
The two, both 36, confessed to investigators that their military boss ordered them to report about Hwang's activities in South Korea and be ready to "slit the betrayer's throat," said a senior district prosecutor on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.
The men, Kim Myong Ho and Dong Myong Kwan, entered South Korea in January and February via Thailand. Their plot was revealed while they underwent an intense investigation on their motive for defecting, the prosecutor said. The duo allegedly violated the National Security Law, which carries a maximum sentence of death upon conviction, he said.
A spokesman at the National Intelligence Service confirmed the arrest of the men but didn't provide additional details. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing an office policy.
Several death threats against Hwang - apparently made by South Koreans sympathizing with North Korea - have been reported. But it was the first time North Korean agents have been arrested for an assassination plot against Hwang, the prosecutor said.
In 1997, a nephew of one of Kim's former wives - Lee Han-young - was shot in 1997 in front of a Seoul apartment 15 years after defecting to the South. Officials never caught the assailants, but said they believe North Korean agents were responsible.
Hwang, who returned to Seoul earlier this week after a rare trip to the U.S., wasn't surprised at the news of the plot, Yonhap news agency reported Wednesday, citing an unidentified acquaintance of Hwang's.
"I called Hwang after watching news of the agents' arrest, but he told me, 'Why are you concerned about such a thing?' " the acquaintance was quoted as saying.
Hwang, speaking to journalists and academics in Washington late last month, harshly criticized North Korea's authoritarian communist regime and said he decided to flee the North after Kim's policies led to mass starvation in the mid-1990s. He said he has no regrets about his decision.
"Everybody other than (leader) Kim Jong Il in North Korea are slaves, serfs," Hwang said through an interpreter at the time.
Hwang said that change in the North can come only through diplomacy and economic means, not military force.
It was his second trip to the U.S. South Korea's previous liberal governments restricted Hwang's overseas travel because of worries that his criticism of North Korea could complicate efforts to reconcile with Pyongyang, and he could become a target for assassination. South Korea's current conservative government lifted that ban, saying it amounted to a human rights violation.
This program aired on April 21, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.
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