Seoul beefs up security for high-profile defector

Mr Thae has been a critic of North Korea's leader since he defected to Seoul last August.
Mr Thae has been a critic of North Korea's leader since he defected to Seoul last August.

SEOUL • With the North Korean ruler's estranged half-brother killed in an apparent assassination, attention is now on the safety of Mr Thae Yong Ho, one of the remaining high-profile critics of Mr Kim Jong Un.

South Korea's spy agency said on Tuesday that it had raised security for Mr Thae, Pyongyang's former deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom who defected to Seoul last August, following the killing last week of Mr Kim Jong Nam.

The National Intelligence Service is also reportedly seeking to limit Mr Thae's public appearances out of concern that he may be the North's next target. "Such a decision is made when the intelligence agency detects a specific sign of a possible assassination attempt," Yonhap News Agency quoted an anonymous source working with Mr Thae at the Institute for National Security Strategy as saying.

Mr Thae, however, vowed to continue his efforts to shed light on the reclusive communist regime. "I am in a position to continue my work to bring forward the unification of the two Koreas, whatever threat I might face," he said in an interview with local broadcaster YTN on Tuesday.

In an earlier interview with US broadcaster CBS, the defector said that Mr Kim Jong Un would "do anything" to prevent more defections from North Korea. Asked whether Mr Kim would try to assassinate him, he responded: "Why not?"

Rising concerns about the safety of Mr Thae come as Pyongyang is seen tightening its grip on dissenting voices with the apparent murder of Mr Kim Jong Nam, who often spoke out against his younger half- brother Kim Jong Un.

"What worries North Korea the most is hurting Kim Jong Un's reputation," said Professor Yang Moo Jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn said during a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday: "We have to do our utmost to give protection to North Korean defectors.

"Counter-terrorism agencies must ensure their readiness posture against potential terror attacks."

North Korea has a history of assassinating high-profile defectors who speak out against the regime and its dismal human rights condition, although the communist state has neither claimed responsibility nor admitted involvement in such cases.

In 1997, Mr Yi Han Yong, a cousin of Mr Kim Jong Nam, was shot in the head by North Korean assassins outside his apartment in Bundang, just south of Seoul. Mr Yi had defected to South Korea in 1982 when he was studying in Switzerland.

Pyongyang also allegedly ordered the killing of the all-time highest- level North Korean defector: Mr Hwang Jang Yop, who was secretary of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party until he defected in 1997.

THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2017, with the headline 'Seoul beefs up security for high-profile defector'. Print Edition | Subscribe