Tensions on the Korean peninsula increased another notch this week as reports have surfaced about a team of spies attempting to assassinate the highest level North Korean defector living in asylum in Seoul. Hwang Jang-yop is a former North Korean Workers’ Party secretary who defected to South Korea in 1997. He is a bitter critic of Kim Jong-il despite having helped Kim create Pyongyang’s ruling philosophy of juche, or national self-reliance. The two North Korean agents entered South Korea under the guise of asylum-seekers but were detained after a round of routine questioning. Their mission was to slit the throat of the 87-year old Hwang, who occasionally lectures on Korean politics, before committing suicide.
Opposition politicians in South Korea have called foul on the timing of the announcements, accusing conservative ruling party President Lee Myung-bak of using the arrests and the recent sinking of a South Korean ship as ploys to increase votes in the upcoming mayoral and gubernatorial elections. The Korea Herald suggests the attempted assassination is related to fears of a turbulent succession of power from Kim Jong-il to his son, Kim Jong-eun. In his recent lectures, Hwang expressed skepticism about the new leader’s abilities to rule. There may already be enough support for Kim Jong-eun, however, given reports that the assassination plot originated in a military intelligence directorate, indicating that the army supports Kim’s transition plans to his son and is seeking to eliminate any opposition to his ascension.
Either way, the recriminations between the two Koreas continues to build. Given the seriousness of the Cheonan explosion and the lack of retaliation from the South thus far, this newest incident is not likely to be a casus belli but yet another sticking point in the way of Korean reconciliation and de-nuclearization.