Would-be North Korean defector shot at embassy

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The Independent Online
RICHARD LLOYD PARRY

Tokyo

A member of an elite unit of the North Korean army was shot dead yesterday after forcing his way into the Russian embassy in Pyongyang to demand political asylum.

The Russian Itar-Tass agency said Cho Myong Gil, 25, a sergeant in the State Guard, broke into the embassy compound on Wednesday and shot dead three North Korean security guards before forcing his way into the trade mission, where he threatened to kill himself unless he was granted asylum. Conflicting reports in Moscow said he had shot himself in the head or been killed by North Korean commandos.

Cho was denounced as "a mentally-ill criminal" by North Korean diplomats but Russian agencies said he made no threats against embassy staff, and appeared "tranquil and well-balanced". The Russian embassy is in the heart of Pyongyang, near government buildings and the office of the "Dear Leader", Kim Jong Il. Streets were sealed off but foreigners in Pyongyang said life last night appeared to have returned to normal.

Since the death in 1994 of North Korea's founding president, Kim Il Sung, and the succession of his son, Kim Jong Il, the loyalty of the million- strong army has been a subject of speculation. Two weeks ago aid agencies helping victims of floods and food shortages were asked to cancel a planned appeal after the military had objected to their presence in the country.

Several North Korean soldiers, including a colonel, defected to the South last year, and this week's shooting will add to unease about possible divisions in the armed forces.

Today is a holiday in North Korea, marking the 54th birthday of Kim Jong Il, but there is still no sign he is about to assume the key titles of state held by his father, secretary of the Workers' Party, and state president. Apart from the embassy incident, the occasion has been marred by the defection from Moscow of Sung Hye Rim, the mother of Mr Kim's eldest son. Officials in Seoul confirmed Ms Sung and her sister, niece and bodyguard were in Western Europe and that she planned to apply for asylum.

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