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S. Korea ups security for NK diplomat defector

With the North Korean ruler’s estranged half brother killed in an apparent assassination, attention is now on the safety of Thae Yong-ho, one of the remaining high-profile critics of the ruthless Kim Jong-un.

South Korea’s spy agency said Tuesday that it has heightened security for Thae, Pyongyang’s former deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom who defected to Seoul last August, following the killing last week of Kim Jong-nam.
This photo taken on Feb. 9, 2017, shows Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat stationed in London who defected to South Korea last year. (Yonhap)
This photo taken on Feb. 9, 2017, shows Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat stationed in London who defected to South Korea last year. (Yonhap)

The National Intelligence Service is also reportedly seeking to limit Thae’s public appearances out of concerns that the high-profile defector may be the North’s next target.

“Such a decision is made when the intelligence agency detects a specific sign of a possible assassination attempt,” Yonhap News Agency quoted an anonymous source working with Thae at the Institute for National Security Strategy as saying.

Thae, however, vowed to continue his efforts to shed light on the reclusive communist regime.

“I am in a position to continue my work to bring forward the unification of the two Koreas, whatever threat I might face,” said Thae during an interview with local broadcaster YTN on Tuesday.

In an earlier interview with US broadcaster CBS, the defector said that Kim Jong-un would “do anything” to prevent more defections from North Korea. Asked whether the young tyrant would try to assassinate him, he responded, “Why not?”

Rising concerns about the safety of Thae come as Pyongyang is seen tightening its grip on dissenting voices with the apparent murder of Kim Jong-nam, who often spoke out against his younger brother Kim Jong-un.

“What worries North Korea the most is hurting Kim Jong-un’s reputation,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn also warned that North Korea may plot another terror attack to distract the international community from the death of Kim Jong-nam.

“We have to do our utmost to give protection to North Korean defectors,” said Hwang during a Cabinet meeting Tuesday. “Counterterrorism agencies must ensure their readiness posture against potential terror attacks.”

Rep. Ha Tae-Keung of the Bareun Party said Monday that there was a terrorism attempt against a high-profile North Korean defector. The lawmakers did not reveal who the target was and where the intelligence came from. Last week, he said Thae would be the No. 1 target.

“There was a terrorism attempt against a high-profile North Korean defector living in South Korea,” said Ha, a former activist who campaigned against North Korea’s human rights violations. “An assassin from a third country, sent by the North, attempted an attack on the defector but it failed.”

North Korea has a history of assassinating high-profile defectors who speak out against the regime and its dismal human rights condition, although the communist state has neither claimed responsibility nor admitted involvement in such cases.

In 1997, Yi Han-yong, a cousin of Kim Jong-nam, was shot in the head by North Korean assassins outside his apartment in Bundang, just south of Seoul. Yi had defected to South Korea in 1982 when he was studying in Switzerland. He was the highest-level North Korean to flee at that time.

Pyongyang also allegedly ordered the killing of the all-time highest-level North Korean defector: Hwang Jang-yop, who had been the secretary of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party until he defected in 1997. Three South Koreans were arrested in 2010 for plotting the assassination of Hwang after being recruited by North Korean agents posing as defectors.

By Yeo Jun-suk (