South Korea On Terrorism Alert Defector Critical After Shooting; Attack Called Signal From North
South Korea went on a terrorism alert on Sunday as the police and soldiers fanned out in an intensive hunt for two men, suspected of being North Korean agents, who shot a prominent North Korean defector on Saturday night.
The brazen assassination attempt, as well as the defection in Beijing last week of a senior North Korean official, have dramatically intensified the cold war animosity on the heavily armed Korean peninsula and could derail recent steps toward easing tensions.
“If it’s a North Korean hit, it’s going to be hard to keep the other things going,” an official of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul said on Sunday.
But he added that both Washington and Seoul hoped that the recent events would not set back efforts to arrange peace talks with North Korea, to construct nuclear reactors there or to provide new food aid for the starving country.
The defector, Lee Han-young, was near death Sunday night in a hospital in Bundang, a southern suburb of Seoul, after being shot in the head as he stepped out of the elevator into the landing in front of the 14th-floor apartment in which he was staying. It was the first shooting of a North Korean defector in South Korea.
Lee, 36, is the nephew of Sung Hae-rim, who is usually described as the former wife of Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader, though it is unclear if the two were actually married.
Because of his connections, Lee’s defection in 1982 had been kept a secret, and he had even changed his name and undergone plastic surgery to conceal his identity.
But last February, Lee’s cover was blown when South Korean newspapers reported that his aunt, who had been living in Moscow, was trying to defect to the West or South Korea. It appears that it was Lee himself, who was in financial straits, who sold the story to the newspapers.
The reports made him an instant celebrity - but also probably a marked man to the angered North Koreans.
Sung’s current situation is not clear, but it was reported that she never defected and is still in Moscow.
The South Korean home affairs minister, Suh Chung-hwa, called the shooting “an assassination attempt by North Korean infiltrators,” according to a government statement issued after an emergency meeting of ministers on Sunday.
Prime Minister Lee Soo-sung said the attack was retaliation for the defection last week of Hwang Jang Yop, a high-ranking North Korean official who tutored Kim Jong Il in Communist ideology.
Another official who deals with North Korea issues said the attack might have been meant as a “warning” to Hwang, who is stranded in the South Korean consulate in Beijing, where South Korean officials said he had requested asylum.
“It is saying, ‘You can meet a similar fate if you go to Seoul,”’ said this official, who spoke on the condition he not be identified.
South Korean officials are trying to persuade China to let Hwang go to South Korea. But China, which tries to remain friendly with both North and South Korea, has not indicated what it will do.
The Chinese police, armed with assault rifles and a water cannon, have cordoned off the area around the South Korean consulate, putting spiked wire across the roads to puncture the tires of any vehicle that comes too close.