North Korean hitman foiled in plot to poison top dissident

 

Authorities in Seoul say they have foiled an assassination attempt by a North Korean ex-commando, who came south armed with poison needles to murder one of the world's most outspoken anti-Pyongyang activists.

Officials with South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS) reportedly stopped the man, known as Ahn, on his way to kill Park Sang-hak, a defector-turned-campaigner who has enraged the North with a noisy campaign against the regime of Kim Jong-il.

In a plot reminiscent of the Cold War killing of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, who was stabbed with a ricin-tipped umbrella in London in 1978, Ahn planned to poison or stab his quarry with the needles, according to sources quoted in the South Korean media.

Mr Park is the controversial chairman of the Freedom Fighters of North Korea, which claims to have sent 10 million propaganda messages in balloons across the Demilitarised Zone into the isolated Stalinist backwater. In 2008 he met former US President George W Bush, who called him a "great freedom fighter".

The son of a North Korean spy, Mr Park defected more than a decade ago and has since become one of the regime's most implacable enemies, travelling the world to speak of torture, "indescribable" mass starvation and public executions, all of which occur regularly, he says.

"We have to let the world know about the atrocities in North Korea and help our brothers and sisters there," he told the Oslo Freedom Forum on human rights in 2009. He said that three million people died of starvation in the 1990s after the North's public food distribution system failed. "It is truly a living hell on earth. Millions starve to death while the dictator spends a billion dollars on his father's monuments."

Relations on the Korean peninsula have worsened since the election of the South's conservative President Lee Myung-bak, who has effectively ended a decade of détente known as the Sunshine Policy. Both sides came close to full-scale hostilities last November after northern soldiers shelled an island near the border, killing four people.

Last year, South Korean police arrested two Pyongyang agents sent to kill Hwang Jang-yop, the North's most famous defector. Both confessed and have been jailed. The North has denied involvement in the plot but it has a long history of assassination attempts: Lee Han-yong, a nephew of Kim Jong-il's mistress, was murdered in South Korea soon after Hwang's 1997 defection, in what was apparently a revenge attack.

Mr Park said that his would-be killer asked to meet him earlier this month. "Ahn 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," he told AFP news agency. Ahn once served in North Korea's special forces, he said.

Mr Park's propaganda activities reportedly so enraged the North that its soldiers have threatened to fire on him and his group unless they stop their so-called balloon missions. The balloons are loaded with fliers describing the revolutions in the Middle East and DVDs showing Kim Jong-il, his heir apparent Kim Jong-un and other members of his family in the crosshairs of a gunsight.

If charged under the South's National Security Law, Ahn, said to be in his 40s, could face the death penalty. More than 21,000 North Koreans have defected to the South since the 1950-53 Korean war ended with a truce, although the two countries technically remain in a state of war.

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