MS Risk Blog

North Korea’s History of Kidnappings and Foreign Assassinations

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In February, local police reported that Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was killed in Malaysia. Over the past several weeks, some South Korean media outlets have reported that North Korean agents were responsible for his death, so far there has been no evidence provided. However, since Kim Jong-un took power, he has made no compunction in execution officials perceived as being a threat to his authority. In one of the most high-profile incidents, his uncle and senior mentor, Chang Song-thaek, was executed. The country itself has also had a long history of sending agents overseas in order to carry out assassinations, attacks and kidnappings. Below are five such incidents.

Raid on the Blue House (1968) 

A team of thirty-one elite, handpicked North Korean commandos were sent to the south with a mission to infiltrate the Blue House, which is South Korea’s presidential residence, and assassinate President Park Chung-hee. While hiding out in the mountains above Seoul, they were discovered by a group of civilians however they decided that instead of killing them, they would teach them about communism and release them with a warning not to tell anyone. Their plan however was foiled as police and the military were notified, although the North Korean commandos managed to evade detection. They entered the capital, dressed in South Korean army uniforms, and marched to the Blue House disguised as the very soldiers tasked with locating them. At a checkpoint 100m away from the Blue House, they were questioned and a gunfight erupted. While many of the commandos managed to flee, most were later killed or committed suicide as they tried to get back to the North. One was captured. In that incident, more than ninety South Koreans wee killed, including a large group of civilians who were reportedly on a bus.

Bombing in Burma (1983)

If the incident in Malaysia is indeed an assassination attempt that occurred in a third country, then this is nothing new. A bomb hidden at the Martyrs’ Mausoleum in Rangoon, the capital of Myanmar, exploded just minutes before then South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan arrived to lay a wreath on 9 October. Mr Chun’s car had been delayed in traffic, which ultimately saved his life, however seventeen South Korean nations, including four ministers were killed, and four Burmese nationals also died. Three North Korean agents were involved in the attack and are said to have detained one of three bombs early, after hearing the sound of a bugle that mistakenly signalled the president’s arrival. They managed to flee the scene, however one was later killed nad the two others were captured.

Overseas Abductions (1970s – 1980s)

North Korea has admitted to kidnapping Japanese citizens in the 1970s nad 1980s in a bid to train its spies in Japanese customs and language. Some were kidnapped from coastal areas in Japan by North Korean agents while others from overseas. The youngest was a thirteen-year-old girl who was abducted in 1977 while on he way home from school. Pyongyang has since retuned five of the abductees, stating that eight more died. Japan however does not believe that hey are dead, adding that far more people were abducted. South Koreans have also been targeted in abduction cases, with the most high profile case being that of a film director and his actress wife, who were taken in Hong Kong to North Korea so that they could help the country build its firm industry.

Killing in Vladivostok (1996)

It is estimated that thousands of North Koreans are living in Russia, and South Korean consular official Choi Duk Keun’s job was to monitor those who were living in Vladivostock. He was found bludgeoned in October 1996, with South Korean media later reporting that he was killed to avenge the deaths of twenty-two North Korean commandos whose submarine ran aground on a beach in South Korea a month earlier.

Targeting Defectors

North Korean defections have led to assassination attempts. In 2016, when North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom defected, South Korea warned at the time of possible revenge assassinations and kidnappings. There is precedent to this as when Hwang Jang-yob, a senior politician, defected to South Korea in 1997, another prominent defector, Yi Han-yong, was shot in the head by suspected North Korea assassins. He was the nephew of Song Hye-rim, who is the mother of Kim Jong-nam. Thirteen years later, two North Korean military officials posing as defectors were jailed in South Korea for an unsuccessful plot to kill Mr Hwang.