North Korea accused of sending assassins across border to kill defector

Analysts fear plot is sign that reckless new regime is poised to take over from Kim Jong-il
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Two north Korean agents were in custody yesterday for a cross-border plot to assassinate the country's most famous defector. The plan has been seen as a sign of increasingly reckless behaviour by the nuclear-armed Stalinist nation before a potentially destabilising change of power.

South Korean police said one of the agents tried to commit suicide after confessing to a plot to kill Hwang Jang-yop, which comes amid rising tensions between the two bitter Cold War enemies. North Korea yesterday demanded recognition as an official nuclear weapons state and said that it would produce as many weapons as it deemed necessary.

The agents were under orders from Lt-General Kim Yong-chol, the shadowy head of a new military reconnaissance unit in Pyongyang, to "cut Hwang's head off", according to reports in South Korea.

Mr Hwang is the North's top-ranked defector, a former secretary of the ruling Workers' Party, reportedly a mentor to leader Kim Jong-il and the man credited with creating the isolated nation's official philosophy of self-reliance.

He is said to have enraged Mr Kim when he fled to the South in 1997. Mr Hwang, 87, is believed to have been the target of several other assassination attempts but said yesterday that he was "unconcerned" by the plot.

The agents, Kim Yong-ho and Dong Myong-gwan trained in China before arriving in Thailand last year posing as defectors, according to South Korea's Joong Ang newspaper.

The newspaper said the men, both majors in the North's army, were deported to the South as refugees earlier this year but confessed their mission when questioned about their motives for defecting.

Military analysts in the South are braced for more uncertainty as their prickly northern neighbour prepares for a transition of power. Mr Kim, who is thought to have suffered a stroke, is tipped to hand over control of the impoverished nation to his youngest son.

Reports this week suggest that North Korea may be preparing for a third nuclear test in May or June. The United States believes that the North has about 50kg of plutonium, which would be enough to make up to eight nuclear weapons, but does not have the skills to put a warhead on to a missile.

Both countries on the Korean peninsula have been in state of uneasy truce, punctuated by sabre-rattling and bouts of explosive violence, since an armistice ended a brutal three-year war in 1953.

In 1968, North Korean soldiers narrowly failed to assassinate the South's then President, Park Chung-hee, in a commando raid on his official residence, the Blue House.

North Korean refugee Lee Han-yong, a nephew of Kim Jong-il's mistress, was killed in South Korea soon after Mr Hwang's 1997 defection, in what was apparently a revenge attack.

Dr Kerry Brown of the international think-tank Chatham House said the latest assassination plot was a "reversion to type".

"The North Koreans sponsored this kind of unconventional subterranean terrorism in the past. The regime is bankrupt. It's not really got any strong international allies, it has a fairly dysfunctional nuclear capacity but is increasingly desperate in getting resources to fund that and to get weapons-grade material."

Many South Koreans believe the North was behind last month's sinking of a Southern frigate near a disputed sea border, which took the lives of 46 sailors. A tearful South Korean President Lee Myung-bak vowed this week to "go to the very end" to uncover the cause of the sinking.

Analysts say his options against the North are limited: any threat of military retaliation is likely to strengthen the hand of Mr Kim. Pyongyang's fears that the transition may go badly are fuelling the increasingly reckless actions of its military.

North Korea has boycotted nuclear disarmament talks with five regional powers including the United States for more than a year, putting conditions on its return that include an end to UN sanctions imposed after its nuclear test in May last year. North Korea left the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, which sets the parameters for being a nuclear weapons state.

Noisy neighbours: the background

* Japanese-occupied Korea was divided in two at the end of World War II, with the United States taking control of the southern portion of the peninsula, and the Soviet Union the area north of the 38th parallel. The intention was for it to be a temporary division.

* The realities of Cold War politics scuppered the plan for an independent and unified Korea and resulted in the establishment of two separate nations in 1948. Kim Il-sung, cultivated by the Soviet Union, became leader of the North after its establishment in September of that year.

* Border clashes and naval skirmishes began almost immediately after the establishment of North Korea. The Korean War began in 1950 with a surprise attack by the North. Hostilities continued until July 1953. While an armistice agreement was signed, there has never been a comprehensive peace agreement.

* Kim Il-sung ruled until his death in 1994, with his son, Kim Jong-il, inheriting power. A new succession is rumoured to be in the offing following reports that the ailing Kim has suffered a stroke.

* The North Korean's nuclear programme became the key issue in North-South relations in the 1990s. North Korea has tested two nuclear weapons and been at the centre of diplomatic efforts to persuade it to freeze its nuclear programme and allow outside monitoring. It pulled out of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty in 2003.