North Korea arrests defector who 'worked as South Korea agent'

 Ko Hyon-Chol (left) bows as he is escorted to a press conference at the People's Palace of Culture in Pyongyang on July 15.
Ko Hyon-Chol (left) bows as he is escorted to a press conference at the People's Palace of Culture in Pyongyang on July 15. PHOTO: AFP

PYONGYANG (AFP) - North Korea on Friday (July 15) paraded a defector accused of involvement in a child abduction plot it says was masterminded by South Korean agents.

In a carefully stage-managed press conference in Pyongyang, Ko Hyon-Chol, 53, "confessed" to attempting to kidnap two North Korean girl orphans and take them to the South.

"I committed the unpardonable crime of being involved in attempted child abduction," a weeping Ko told the press conference attended by foreign media and diplomats.

Ko's case follows the April defection to the South of a dozen North Korean women working in a restaurant in China.

Pyongyang insists that the women were kidnapped by the South's spy agency - the National Intelligence Service (NIS) - but Seoul says they fled of their own free will.

Ko was arrested on May 27 this year after crossing from China in an inflatable boat which he planned to use to ferry back two orphaned girls, aged eight and nine, he said.

He had originally fled North Korea in January 2013 because he had been involved in smuggling and was being investigated by Pyongyang authorities, the press conference heard.

He lived in China for about a year before arriving in the South in 2014 via Laos and Thailand.

Journalists and diplomats were told that Ko had struggled to adjust to life in South Korea and had been unable to find a job, so sought out a defectors' organisation.

There, the press conference heard, he was introduced to NIS agents in December 2015.

He was sent to the Chinese border city of Dandong and asked to reactivate his old smuggling contacts to bring sensitive materials out of North Korea.

Ko said that in May his South Korean handlers told him to arrange the kidnapping of orphans from North Korea. He was also told he would get US$10,000 (S$13,436.50) for each.

"They asked me if I knew about the 12 women who defected as a group and said that was just the beginning", Ko said.

"So I set about abducting children but it wasn't easy," Ko said.

Eventually he selected two targets, two girls, aged eight and nine, who were in an orphanage.

He crossed the river into North Korea with his inflatable boat just after midnight on May 27, but was arrested hours later.

South Korea on Friday demanded Pyongyang swiftly release Ko.  

“The government strongly demands North Korea release our citizens including Ko Hyon-Chol and immediately repatriate them,” the South’s unification ministry said in a statement.