By Ian Birrell
The announcer decreed that Park Sang-hak, a fugitive from Kim Jong-un’s pariah state, must ‘go to hell’ and added a chilling warning: the regime would ‘ruthlessly eliminate’ this maniac.
Lest there be any doubt as to Park’s fate, the announcer ended with a promise that it would ‘bleed him out and gut his intestines’.
Park Sang-hak lives under a permanent shadow of death, branded public enemy number one by the despotic state he once served so loyally.
This diminutive dissident, dedicated to overthrowing the repressive regime, has cheated hit squads sent to assassinate him armed with poisoned needles hidden in pens, and endured numerous death threats – including a decapitated rat sent to his home with the note ‘we will kill you like this rat’.
‘It is stressful but this has been going on for years,’ he told me last week. ‘I can’t stress with every threat but I get angry about death threats to my family and when they threaten to kill my son.’
Like other prominent defectors, he lives with permanent bodyguards. Two sat beside us when we met in a Seoul cafe, carefully watching customers and checking the door each time it opened.
Such security has been stepped up after the mysterious murder of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s leader who was killed with a lethal nerve agent in a Malaysian airport earlier this month.
Kim Jong-nam, once favourite to succeed his father running the hermit kingdom, died quickly after a cloth infused with poison was wiped on his face by two women. The brazen assassination was captured on airport cameras.
It has since emerged the substance used was VX, an odourless chemical weapon so potent it is classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction. Tiny amounts can kill a person, whether inhaled or absorbed through skin.
Police arrested the women, one of whom was vomiting. They turned out to be from Vietnam and Indonesia, claiming to have been persuaded to carry out a prank.
Yesterday it emerged one of the women claimed she was paid 100,000 won (about £70) to ‘rub baby oil’ on Kim Jong-nam’s face.
A North Korean national was also arrested, while four others escaped back over the border to Pyongyang. Two more members of the plot are believed to be hiding in their Kuala Lumpur embassy.
Intelligence figures in South Korea said the assassination was a ‘long-term standing order’ from the North Korean regime – and warned ministers the next target might be a prominent defector.
Few people are more aware of these risks than Park. The son of a senior North Korean spy, he has been called both ‘First Target’ and ‘Enemy Zero’ by the state he used to serve as a trusted party worker.
Since defecting 18 years ago and seeing the lies he was fed by the regime, he has infuriated his former masters by flying homemade balloons over the border loaded with subversive items – from Hollywood films to human rights information.
Last year alone Park despatched two million leaflets attacking the cruel dictatorship that beat his fiancee to pulp after he escaped its clutches. I joined him and his wife to watch one nocturnal stealth launch last summer.
Such actions have led to missiles fired back in return from North Korea – and a series of assassination attempts by agents. Pyongyang vowed to eliminate him in 2008 after he went to the White House to highlight the regime’s atrocities.
Three years later Park received a call from businessmen asking to sponsor his efforts.
‘They told me they wanted to meet to discuss my activities with balloons,’ he recalled last week. ‘So we arranged to meet at a subway station in Gangnam.’
Seoul intelligence was suspicious, however, and warned him not to go. Agents went in Park’s place, arresting a fellow defector who turned out to be a former member of North Korea’s special forces armed with an array of James Bond-style weapons.
‘They had a ballpoint pen which when you pressed the top had a poisoned needle in it, another small gun that fired a poisoned bullet and a vial of poison,’ said Park.
The toxins, if injected into his body, would have caused instant muscle paralysis leading to death by suffocation.
The assassin was also found with an adapted torch that could fire three bullets over a 30-foot range.
The arrested man was a defector recruited by Pyongyang during a business trip to Mongolia the previous year. Bizarrely he told South Korean spooks of the plot and offered to work for them, but after being brushed off decided to carry out the action.
Park told me he originally thought the intelligence warning was fake since South Korea dislikes his activities. ‘It is ironic – I did not believe them at first and thought it was a government plot to stop me raising money,’ he said.
‘But I do not fear death.’ Since then he has faced more attempts on his life. The following year, for instance, a female assassin was sent to kill him under cover of defection, but was caught when put through the security vetting confronting all arrivals from the north.
‘They picked up something weird about her and she ended up confessing they had sent her to kill me. She was meant to receive a gun from someone else who was helping her,’ said Park.
He also endures repeated threats, such as a fake bomb left for ‘the traitor, his wife and son’ in a hotel two years ago, and dead animals in the post. ‘I have been sent packages containing decapitated rats with a note saying we will kill you like this rat.’
Park says his computer and phone are constantly hacked by North Korean agents. They have sent out documents declaring his supposed allegiance to the ‘Supreme Leader’ and fake text messages from South Korean intelligence services.
‘They claim I have been put under investigation. What is really scary is when you look at the contact of the person who sent it their details are all correct. But I have learned to get used to these tricks.’
Park believes the death of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother reminds the world of North Korea’s savagery.
‘The fact that he killed his own family with a poison banned by the international community shows he is capable of crimes against humanity.’
The airport murder is reported to have been masterminded by Division 19 of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, linked to Park’s own attempted assassination.
It recruits and trains foreign nationals to assist special operations and spy missions.
The targeting of Park in September 2011 was one of three assassination attempts in quick succession, exposing a belligerent regime determined to silence enemies.
Just weeks earlier Patrick Kim, a 46-year-old South Korean pastor who secretly aided defectors, collapsed by a taxi stand in the Chinese border town of Dandong with flecks of foam on his mouth.
He was dead by the time he reached hospital. The following day, another South Korean religious activist felt something prick his back shortly after leaving a safe house for refugees. He collapsed, but survived the poison attack.
These hit squads were linked to the rise of Kim Jong-un. The portly young despot has since succeeded his father as third generation ruler in the dynasty that controls every aspect of life in North Korea, sealing its 25 million citizens from the wider world.
The ruthless 33-year-old has consolidated power in his hands by killing 300 senior officials, including his own uncle.
Five other pallbearers at his father’s state funeral in December 2011 have been brutally executed or internally banished. One minister was said to have been blown apart with an anti-aircraft gun in front of hundreds of officials for the crime of falling asleep in a meeting with his leader.
A UN inquiry concluded the regime was guilty of abuses against its own people with a savagery that echoed the Nazis. It heard evidence of torture, death camps and corpses used for fertiliser. Last year South Korea disclosed that Pyongyang had ordered the killing of seven other prominent defectors.
This followed the murder of another activist priest helping North Koreans escape, lured to his death by a young female agent.
Targets included Choi Jung-hoon, commander of the North Korean People’s Liberation Front, a quasi-military group of defectors from the armed forces that wears uniforms and wages information war on the North.
‘It’s terrifying but all I need to do is keep a clear head,’ said Choi, an impressive character who served as an officer in North Korea’s military cyber-hacking unit for almost two decades. He has survived a previous abduction attempt.
One prominent female dissident admitted she was scared after the murders. ‘Trips around south-east Asia are pretty much impossible but we must be careful even in the US and Europe,’ she said.
‘I’m nervous arriving at airports and in public places.’ Reports in Seoul say Thae Yong-ho, the deputy envoy to London who fled last year, curtailed all public activities after the assassination. One of the most senior defectors, he was called ‘scum’ and accused of awful deeds by the regime.
Such threats can revive painful memories for defectors. ‘Since I defected to a free society I am furious whenever we get threats,’ said Kang Chol-hwan, founder of the North Korea Strategy Centre in Seoul, a human rights group. ‘It makes me feel like we are still living under the influence of the rigged country.’
Kang spent ten years in a slave labour camp after his grandfather was convicted of high treason under policies imposing ‘re-education’ on three generations of state enemies. He had to watch executions, bury bodies of those who had died from hunger and even stone the corpses of those hanged after being caught trying to flee.
His group is often hacked, the last time just two months ago, and sent threatening packages.
North Korea justifies its deadly actions with a distorted version of history, claiming to be under threat of imminent attack from the South and United States to stifle dissent.
The peninsula is still technically in a state of war after the 1953 armistice. The regime uses repression and remorseless propaganda to retain its grip.
It is propped up by China, determined to restrain American influence and desperate to prevent a collapse that might lead to a refugee crisis, although last week there were significant ructions in this relationship.
Security forces routinely send highly-trained female spies over the border to seduce military officers in the South, along with using hit squads to kill and kidnap foes.
Often they pose as defectors, such as the pair sent seven years ago to kill a former confidant of Kim Jong-un’s father with orders to ‘slit the betrayer’s throat’. Similar instructions were given to a 1968 team despatched to kill South Korea’s president.
An Chan-il, a former North Korean commando who defected to the South in 1979, said female assassins – armed with good looks and hidden weapons – are increasingly used for hit squads and honey traps. ‘They can easily hide mini poison injectors made of plastic, either in lipsticks, cosmetics or under their clothes,’ he said, adding that such devices go undetected by airport security.
The women, often from elite backgrounds and university educated, go through intensive training that includes building strength, combat skills, language lessons, surveillance and weapons use.
Lee Jong-hoon, South Korea’s ambassador for human rights, told me it was mind-boggling North Korea still carries out such attacks. ‘It is like an old-fashioned criminal organisation, eliminating what it does not like,’ he said. ‘Its leaders see themselves as untouchable.’
There was also fury from the Human Rights Foundation, a New York-based group that works closely with North Korean dissidents. ‘They’ve tried to kill our associates repeatedly,’ said its president Thor Halvorssen. ‘It is time to rein in their activities.’
Halvorssen said the latest assassination was like a scene from a gangster film. ‘It was designed to sow terror in adversaries with a simple message: it doesn’t matter where you are or who you are – we will find you and kill you.