A NORTH Korean intelligence officer who defected to the West has given an extraordinary account of the paranoia within the secretive regime.
The official described how assassination attempts on Kim Jong-il, the country's leader until three years ago, drove its feared internal security apparatus to take elaborate measures. He went on to describe an attempt by a rogue army unit to launch missiles on Pyongyang.
The official, who asked to be named only as "Mr K", said he had personal knowledge of two assassination attempts on Kim Jong-il, who ruled North Korea from 1994 until 2011.
In one attempt, a lone gunman with an automatic weapon attempted to shoot him, but was captured before firing.
In another, a would-be assassin driving a 20-tonne lorry rammed his motorcade but failed to kill Kim Jong-il, whose car was among a convoy of identical limousines and was not among those damaged.
He also detailed two attempted coups against the regime, following uprisings in the Korean People's Army, especially among officers trained in the former Soviet Union.
In one plot, a group of officers hoping to provoke a Russian intervention against the regime planned to stage a bomb attack on the Russian consulate in the North Korean city of Chongjin.
In another, a north eastern army unit planned a missile strike on Pyongyang targets.
Much of what Mr K said is supported by other sources.
North Korea watchers have noted that in 1994, a group of officers who had studied in Russia were rounded up and imprisoned, in what became known as the "Frunze Affair".
Then in 1997, for reasons unexplained, the regime sent troops into the headquarters of the army's Sixth Corps, prompting fighting. The corps was subsequently disbanded.
Describing the country's internal security system, Mr K – who fled North Korea in 2005 – said that even the most senior cadres and army generals were routinely monitored, often by agents posing as chauffeurs.
He also said the regime's crackdown on private markets had led to a flurry of dissent, with messages such as "How are we supposed to survive?" scrawled on walls.
Pyongyang officials were so suspicious that when a circus in the North Korean capital burned down a day before Kim Jong-il's birthday, it was believed to be an anti-regime protest, he said.
Whether the plots were real, or imagined by a paranoid regime, is unclear. "I would be sceptical unless you have a chain of collaborative evidence, and in a state which applies torture, you can create collaborative evidence by skillful application of the hot iron," said Andrei Lankov, a North Korean expert at Seoul's Kookmin University. "But this does not mean conspiracies did not exist."
Unlike most defectors, who remain slight because of malnutrition, Mr K has a robust build and spoke confidently.
He had little information about the country's current leader, Kim Jong-un, he said, but speculated that he would be difficult to assassinate. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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