B.G. Bae defected from North Korea 16 years ago--but the old flash of terror he once felt toward the ominous regime he left behind revisited him Monday when Seoul police called and warned him not to go out at night, meet strangers or take unusual phone calls.
The police warnings were part of a terrorism alert that has plunged this last Cold War frontier into even deeper tension and put Bae and more than 700 other Northern escapees in South Korea on edge following an assassination attempt Saturday on prominent defector Lee Han Young. Lee, who escaped in 1982, is the nephew of a woman believed to be the former wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
South Korean security officials suspect that the attack on Lee was either a warning to other would-be defectors or retaliation by North Korea for what the Communist regime has claimed was the kidnapping of top party official Hwang Jang Yop. Hwang, a worldly intellectual said to have taught North Korea’s juche ideology of self-reliance to Kim, has reportedly requested political asylum and is being harbored in the South Korean Consulate in Beijing.
But in the first sign that a resolution to the tense standoff may be close at hand, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman hinted Monday that the North may drop its desperate efforts--and threats of violence--to keep Hwang from defecting.
“If Secretary Hwang was kidnapped, we’ll sternly deal with the incident,” the spokesman told the North’s official Korean Central News Agency. “But if he wants to defect, it makes him a traitor to the nation, and we have no desire to bring back a traitor.”
The glimmer of compromise came after Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, warned the North against provocation. Meanwhile, South Korea decided to resume food aid to the North as scheduled. Seoul also will send survey teams to plan the construction of two light-water nuclear power plants after North Korea sent a letter guaranteeing the safety of the teams.
Lee was declared brain dead Monday after being attacked by two assailants and shot in the head as he tried to enter the 14th-floor apartment of a relative in a southern suburb of Seoul. Since defecting in 1982, he had been so paranoid about his safety that he underwent extensive cosmetic surgery and, like many defectors, moved several times to escape detection.
So far, no material evidence has linked North Korea to the assassination attempt. But authorities cite a Belgian-made Browning pistol--the weapon of choice for Northern agents--and other circumstantial evidence to buttress their claims.
Meanwhile, South Korean officials were taking no chances of other terrorist attacks. They intensified airport searches with sniffer dogs, added 8,400 police for roadblock checkpoints around Seoul, heightened security around government buildings and increased protection for politicians, North Korean defectors and other potential targets.
“I don’t think I’ll be a target of retaliation since I defected so long ago and I’m not a big shot,” said Bae, a former radio operator in Pyongyang, the Northern capital, who escaped to freedom in 1981 and now runs a successful broadcast equipment manufacturing firm. “But authorities should provide close attention to recent defectors. They make much ado about them during terrorist alerts, then they forget about them.”
Bae said not all defectors need a round-the-clock guard--he enjoyed that privilege for two years and remained terrified of Pyongyang retaliation for five--but that care should be taken not to use their real names in interviews, family registers, telephone directories and the like.
One defector told the Seoul-based Korea Times that his life has been threatened in phone calls; another recounted how he reached for a knife hidden beneath the bedding whenever a shadow crossed the wall in his home.
Lee was no longer under official police protection when he was attacked.
Here in Seoul--just a 30-minute drive away from a million enemy soldiers deployed near the most heavily fortified border in the world--the terrorism alert has thrown the public into another delicate balancing act between real security needs and questionable political motives.
The opposition National Congress for New Politics has raised questions about a letter allegedly written by Hwang. Among other things, the letter urges South Korea to support a strong ruling party and strengthen its military forces and the shadowy intelligence organization known as the National Security Planning Agency, or NSPA, in order to fend off Pyongyang aggression.
In a sensational claim, Hwang also reportedly wrote that 50,000 North Korean spies have infiltrated the South, penetrating the top levels of government--a number 50 times higher than estimates usually made in the South.
Chung Hyung Keun, a former NSPA deputy director and ruling party member, scoffed at questions over whether parts of the Hwang letter could have been dictated or written by security agents themselves. “The NSPA is not that childish,” he said.
Chon Yong Taek, head of the National Congress party’s intelligence committee, agreed that security should be beefed up. But he expressed fears that the climate--and Hwang’s allegations--could lead to a witch hunt of anti-establishment politicians and activists.
Opposition members have long argued that security alerts are too often used to shore up support for weak governments--and that the current one is possibly being used to distract public attention from a political corruption scandal involving more than $5 billion in questionable loans to the Hanbo business group. A weeks-long investigation should climax Wednesday with the release of the prosecution’s report on the scandal.
“I’m ashamed to admit that the practice in the past under authoritarian regimes has been to always exaggerate threats from the North . . . when threatened with domestic problems,” Chon said. “But I believe South Korean society is now mature enough to not allow the government to use this scheme for its benefit.”
A South Korean official sharply rebutted opposition charges of political opportunism.
“It is a preposterous allegation that the government is trying to exaggerate the North Korea threat, because we can see with our own eyes what is happening,” the official said. “North Korea hasn’t renounced terrorism, which it has used for years as one of its means to achieve its end. The danger is real, and we have to remain vigilant.”
The terrorism alert comes as National Assembly members prepare to debate whether to limit or strengthen the powers of the security agency to root out North Korean spies and other security threats. The agency was stripped of those investigative powers in 1993, in a grand gesture by South Korean President Kim Young Sam shortly after he ushered in the first civilian democracy in more than three decades.
But, claiming that the 1993 law inadvertently crippled the nation’s ability to protect itself from Pyongyang’s web of spies and sympathizers, the ruling New Korea Party pushed through a revision to restore those powers--as well as liberalize labor laws to allow easier layoffs--in a semi-secret parliamentary session in December.
After that action set off national protests, the ruling party agreed to reopen debate on the revisions, and reconvened a 30-day session of the National Assembly on Monday.
Chi Jung Nam of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.