The American-led U.N. Command in South Korea on Tuesday accused North Korea of planting land mines near a truce village inside the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the two Koreas.
Much of the border, one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints, is strewn with land mines and laced with barbed wire. But South Korean media said no land mines had been planted in the area of the truce village of Panmunjom until North Korea placed an unspecified number there last week.
Under the Korean War armistice, the two sides are barred from carrying out any hostile acts within or across the 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) -wide DMZ.
More than a million mines are believed to be buried inside the DMZ. North Korean mines occasionally have washed down a swollen river into South Korea, killing or injuring civilians. In August 2015, land mine blasts maimed two South Korean soldiers and caused tensions between the two Koreas to flare.
An unidentified South Korean government official said the North planted the mines to prevent front-line North Korean soldiers from defecting to South Korea via Panmunjom.
On Sunday, South Korea said its neighbor North Korea could resort to assassinations and kidnappings in revenge for recent defections.
An official from South Korea’s Unification Ministry said the defection of North Korea’s deputy ambassador in London was helping put the North in “a very difficult situation”.
“Considering [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-Un’s character, it is very dangerous,” said the unidentified official.
“It is highly likely that North Korea will make various attempts to prevent further defections and unrest among its people.”
North Korea has threatened to turn South Korea and the US into “a heap of ashes through a Korean-style pre-emptive nuclear strike”.
The words come as South Korea and the US begin a 12-day military exercise called Ulchi Freedom Guardian, which North Korea has described as an invasion rehearsal.
The exercise involves 25,000 American and 50,000 South Korean troops.
The North Korean Foreign Ministry has described the military exercise as an “unpardonable criminal act” that could bring the peninsula to “the brink of war”.
The country often issues such fiery rhetoric when it feels threatened.
China has also voiced concern about the exercise, with the official Xinhua news agency saying it would make North Korea “more aggressive” at an already sensitive time.
North Korea’s military chiefs said “first strike” units were ready to attack if the US or South Korea showed any signs of invading.
Predictably, North Korea has branded their former UK-based diplomat who defected to South Korea as “human scum”.
Without listing his name, the North’s Korean Central News Agency said the envoy had been accused of leaking secrets, embezzlement and child rape. It said the UK had been told in June and had been asked for his return but instead handed him to South Korea.
In a commentary, the KCNA said “[the fugitive] should have received legal punishment for the crimes he committed, but he discarded the fatherland that raised him and even his own parents and brothers by fleeing, thinking nothing but just saving himself, showing himself to be human scum who lacks even an elementary level of loyalty and even tiny bits of conscience and morality that are required for human beings”.
In the past, Mr Thae had argued the British were brainwashed by their ruling class into believing “shocking, terrifying” lies about North Korea under its leader Kim Jong-un.
Thae Yong Ho, the most senior North Korean diplomat to flee to the South, is likely to have round-the-clock protection and make a comfortable living at a think-tank run by Seoul’s intelligence service, say elite defectors who followed a similar path.
Choi Ju-hwal was a colonel in the North Korean army when he fled to South Korea via Hong Kong during a business trip in China in 1995, making him the highest-level military defector at the time. Choi said that for two years, he had four armed policemen guarding him around the clock due to concerns about his safety. He now has a lower level of police protection.
While Thae had a relatively high public profile as a representative of North Korea in London, Choi expects the ex-diplomat to try to live anonymously in South Korea. “He won’t pursue a public life, because he has to think about the safety of his family he brought here.” Choi said.
One thing is certain: Well-connected defectors like Thae are treated as a valuable resource who can shed light on a secretive neighbor.
South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joo-hee said on Wednesday North Korean diplomat Thae Yong Ho defected for the sake of his family and because he was “tired of Kim Jong Un’s regime.”
Liberty in North Korea (LINK) Director of Research and Strategy Sokeel Park said the defection of the senior North Korean diplomat was a “unique situation,” and could lead to threats of retaliation from North Korea.
“There’s been those kind of things that have happened in the past for very high level defectors: assassination attempts, death threats … there will be protection from the South Korean authorities around this person, especially [in] the short term,” Park said.
Park said the defector Thae was the member of an elite family in North Korea, the son of a high-profile general. As with all high-profile defections, Park said the family still in North Korea could expect to face suspicion and possibly punishment in the future.
Park said it was unusual the diplomat had been with his entire immediate family overseas when he was posted. “That’s quite rare … a lot of the time there will be a son or an immediate family member that’s still back in North Korea kind of as collateral to make it harder for people to defect,” he said.
When asked why Thae may have defected to South Korea, rather than the United Kingdom where he was posted, Park said he may have been offered more incentives. “Maybe he would have better career prospects, for instance, if he came to South Korea, worked with the national intelligence service … rather than staying in the United Kingdom,” he said.
When North Korean defector Choi Sung-Guk decided it was time to go public with his experiences, he avoided the well-trodden “harrowing memoir” route in favor of a cartoon strip.
Drawing skills and some online space provided Choi with everything he needed to reach a young Korean-speaking audience that might otherwise have little attention to spare for a 36-year-old escapee from over the border. Choi, who spent eight years making cartoons at a Pyongyang animation studio, now posts a weekly online comic strip, or webtoon, on South Korea’s largest internet portal, Naver.
The strip is called Rodong Simmun (Labor Interrogation) — a play on the name of the North Korean ruling party’s official mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun (Labor Newspaper) — and details the struggles of North Korean defectors adapting to life in the capitalist South. A lot of the material is based on Choi’s own experiences since arriving in Seoul as a 30-year-old defector in 2010.
Choi only started posting his strips in May and, in what is a crowded and highly-competitive field, they are already averaging around 20,000 views and garnering fawning reviews from a growing number of South Korean fans. The YouTube channel also has Korean subscribers living overseas in countries like the United States.
[Read full Korea Herald article]
A senior North Korean diplomat based in London has defected to South Korea, becoming one of the highest Northern officials to do so, South Korea said Wednesday.
Thae Yong Ho, minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, has arrived in South Korea with his family and is under the protection of the South Korean government, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said. Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-Hee said Thae told South Korean officials that he decided to defect because of his disgust with the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, his yearning for South Korean democracy and worries about the future of his children.
Jeong said Thae was the second-highest official in North Korea’s embassy, and is the most senior North Korean diplomat to defect to South Korea. (In 1997, the North Korean ambassador to Egypt fled but resettled in the United States.) The highest-level North Korean to seek asylum in South Korea is Hwang Jang-yop, a senior ruling Workers’ Party official who once tutored Kim Jong Un’s late father, dictator Kim Jong Il. Hwang died in 2010.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo, senior lecturer in international relations at King’s College London, said this diplomatic defection “could prove very valuable to South Korea, the U.S. and other countries. … Most North Korean defectors have limited access to the inner workings of the North Korean regime,” he said. “The defection of a diplomat would allow intelligence services and military forces in other countries to learn more about the level of support that Kim Jong Un enjoys, recent developments in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs or the extent to which real economic reforms are being implemented.”
Thae, 55, is a veteran diplomat who is experienced in dealing with countries in Western Europe. He led a North Korean delegation that held talks with European Union representatives over the North’s human rights situation in Brussels in 2001, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. He had worked at the North Korean Embassy in London for about 10 years.
The South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo reports:”A DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] diplomat in London is going through procedures to seek asylum in a third country.” The paper said that in this context “a third country” means one that is neither North nor South Korea.
“A high-level defection, if confirmed, will be deeply embarrassing for the regime,” said John Nilsson-Wright, an expert on Asian affairs at the London-based Chatham House think tank. “The intelligence benefits to the UK and its allies from such a defection are likely to prove valuable.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has sent Russian President Vladimir Putin a friendly message expressing his desire for greater relations between the two countries.
Historically, Moscow was a strong backer of the North Korean regime during Soviet times and, after a drop in ties since the Soviet collapse, Putin has moved Russia to stronger dialogue with the North Korean leadership. Russia invited Kim to a May parade in Moscow in 2015, although he did not attend.
Kim, however, appears keen to upgrade relations with the Kremlin, sending Putin a message with “friendly greetings” for North Korea’s anniversary of the allied defeat of Japan in Korea during the closing months of World War II, Pyonyang’s state news agency KCNA reported Monday.
“I express belief that the relations of friendship and cooperation between the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and Russia forged in the hard struggle against the common enemy would invariably develop in line with the aspiration and desire of the peoples of the two countries,” Kim wrote, using Pyonyang’s official name for North Korea.
Although the Kremlin has not confirmed the exchange, KCNA also posted an apparent response from Putin to Kim, wishing the Korean leader good health, success and expressing the hope of mutual prosperity.