WASHINGTON – In the paranoid universe of North Korea, the feverish accusations it makes against its sworn enemies bear a creepy resemblance to its own misdeeds.
Its latest claim of a South Korean and American plot to assassinate Kim Jong Un using biochemical weapons comes weeks after the North Korean leader’s estranged brother, Kim Jong Nam, was slain in a Malaysian airport. Authorities cited the presence of VX nerve agent, and North Korea is widely believed to have been behind responsible.
While Pyongyang’s allegations can’t be entirely discounted, its history is replete with allegations of deadly conspiracies by its enemies, like purported planning for a U.S. invasion or nuclear war plans, and South Korean kidnapping missions. These assertions from Pyongyang often appear like the pot calling the kettle black. The North has a grim record of military aggression, abductions and assassinations against South Korean leaders that pale in comparison to anything it has faced.
Friday’s statement on state media was published days before South Korea’s May 9 election. A more liberal government is likely to emerge, one that could take a softer line toward the North. But the reclusive communist government may have intended its lambaste as a rebuff to U.S. efforts to reinstate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism – a black mark that was lifted in 2008.
“Pyongyang’s diatribe could be an attempt to redirect attention away from its own use of a chemical weapon of mass destruction,” said Bruce Klingner, a Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation.
Here are instances of North Korea claiming conspiracies against it, alongside evidence of actions the North itself has perpetrated.
North Korea has railed against U.S. and South Korea planning for “decapitation” strikes against its leadership. In December 2008, the North even claimed it arrested a South Korean intelligence operative who was on a “terrorist mission” against Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s late father. State-run news said the suspect was sent “speech and acoustic sensing and pursuit devices for tracking the movement of the top leader and even violent poison.”
There is precedent for South Korea plotting to kill the North Korean leader. In 1968, South Korea set up a secret commando team charged with assassinating North Korea’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung, the current leader’s grandfather. But it never carried out the mission. Amid warming inter-Korean relations, the team mutinied in 1971, killing its trainers and marching on Seoul before being stopped.
The mission followed a 1968 North Korean attempt to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee. Thirty-one North Korean commandos slipped into South Korea and came within striking distance of the Seoul presidential palace. South Korean security forces repelled the assault. The only commando who was captured said he came to “slit the throat” of Park.
In 1983, North Korean agents detonated a bomb meant for South Korea’s leader while he visited Myanmar, then known as Burma. President Chun Doo-hwan narrowly escaped the attack. But 20 others died, including four Cabinet ministers, his ambassador to Burma and several top aides. In 1987, North Korea bombed a Korean Air passenger jet, killing 115 people.
Another regular North Korea accusation: South Korea abducting or enticing the North’s citizens to defect. Seoul denies the claims. More than 29,000 North Koreans have fled to the south since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, according to South Korean government data. Many North Korean defectors report wanting to avoid the North’s harsh political system and poverty.
After 13 North Korean workers from a restaurant in China defected last year, Pyongyang said they were kidnapped by South Korean spies. North Korea has demanded their return. South Korea said the workers chose to resettle on their own. It was the largest group defection to the South since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011.
North Korea has a record of abducting other nations’ citizens, though. A U.N. Commission of Inquiry in 2014 found hundreds of South Koreans, Japanese and others were abducted between the 1960s and 1980s in operations approved by the supreme leader.
In 2002, North Korea acknowledged kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens decades earlier to train spies in Japanese language and culture. Five were allowed to return to Japan that year. The North said the others died or never entered North Korea. Japan is investigating hundreds of more cases of possible abductions.
North Korea maintains that it must develop nuclear weapons because of the “hostile” policy of the United States, which retains 28,500 troops in South Korea and holds bi-annual military drills the North considers rehearsals for invasion. Tensions have spiked as President Donald Trump deployed an aircraft carrier strike group to waters off the Korean Peninsula. Last week, North Korean Defense Minister Gen. Pak Yong Sik said his country was ready to use pre-emptive strikes to defend against “U.S. imperialists,” warning nuclear war could break out because of the “frantic war drills.”
Typically, North Korea has provoked the periodic military clashes that break out with South Korea. In March 2010, a North Korean torpedo allegedly sank a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors. Months later, North Korea fired artillery at a South Korean island, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians. South Korea returned fire, but it’s unclear if North Korea suffered casualties.
North Korea is the only country to have conducted a nuclear explosion in the 21st century and it has accelerated weapons testing as aid-for-disarmament negotiations have stalled. Between 1994 and 2008, it did 16 ballistic missile tests and one nuclear test; since 2009, 72 missile tests and four nuclear tests. Even China, which fought on its side in the Korean War, opposes the testing, which violates U.N. Security Council resolutions. Experts say North Korea may already be able to hit South Korea or Japan with a nuclear weapon, and within years could have the capability to target the American mainland.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.