South Korea recently warned of possible North Korean terrorist acts against South Koreans living abroad, following the airlifts last month of more than 400 North Korean refugees from Southeast Asia to South Korea. North Korea has engaged in terrorist acts against South Korea before. VOA's Korean Service recently spoke with the highest-ranking North Korean defector, Hwang Jang Yop, who says North Korean leaders knew about, and even helped organize, at least two terrorist acts against South Korea in the 1980s.
South Korea suffered two horrific terrorist attacks in the not so distant past. In 1983, 17 South Koreans, including several cabinet members, were killed in a bombing against a South Korean state delegation visiting Burma. The South Korean president at the time, Chun Doo Hwan, narrowly missed assassination.
Then, in 1987, an in-flight bombing of a Korean Air Lines passenger jet killed all 115 people on board. The flight, from Abu Dhabi to Seoul, crashed in the Indian Ocean.
In both cases, South Korean embassy spokesman Oh Soo Dong says Seoul believes North Korea was responsible. "We strongly condemn the North Korean, the terrorist acts, such as the Korean Air Lines bomb incident," he says. "No doubt about that."
VOA's Korean Service recently spoke with Hwang Jang Yop, who was the secretary of international affairs for North Korea's ruling Labor, or Communist, Party, before he defected to South Korea in 1997. Back in the 1980s, Mr. Hwang was a high-ranking North Korean official, a position that gave him first-hand insight into Pyongyang's activities.
Regarding the 1983 Burma bombing, Mr. Hwang says he had visited the Southeast Asian country often and had briefed North Korea's official in charge of terrorism about it.
"Later, I found out he went there and committed it. They didn't think it was bad to commit terrorism against high-ranking officials of South Korea. Rather, they thought it was good, as part of a revolutionary task," said Mr. Hwang. "They thought that killing them all [South Korean leaders] is okay if they can find a way to do it. So, they boasted [among North Korean leaders in Pyongyang] about the Rangoon terrorism."
Burmese police caught the culprits, who confessed that they were from North Korea and were trying to assassinate the South Korean president. Mr. Hwang says after some discussion, North Korea's leaders decided to completely disassociate themselves with the plot.
"When the terrorists were captured, the incident created a problem for North Korea. One day, during a meeting of the inner circle, [then North Korean president] Kim Il-Sung said Pyongyang should assert that the leadership did not know about the plan and that subordinates carried it out," he said. "But [his son and current North Korean president] Kim Jong Il interrupted and said Pyongyang should categorically deny any involvement, from the very beginning."
Mr. Hwang says Pyongyang also denied any involvement in the 1987 KAL plane bombing, even though the evidence pointed to North Korea. "They have never admitted anything. What I heard was the man on the mission killed himself and that the woman was caught." The former North Korean official said he has no doubts Pyongyang was behind the attack because the woman, Kim Hyun Hee, told him directly about how she had been recruited and what she did. He says he thinks the bombing, which occurred in November 1987, may have had to do with the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
"The North Korean leaders never discussed it with me, but I knew they did not like the upcoming Seoul Olympic games, particularly since many socialist countries were scheduled to participate in the games," said Mr. Hwang. "I guess they wanted to disturb the games."
The official South Korean government verdict on the two attacks laid the blame squarely on Pyongyang.
But what Seoul thought was a closed investigation into the 1987 bombing is once again coming under increased scrutiny. The surviving families of the victims are demanding the incident be re-investigated.
"The government is thinking about reopening this case, because some people are suspicious about the government announcement about that," explained Mr. Oh, the South Korean embassy spokesman.
As for whether South Korea suspects North Korea of any future terrorist acts, spokesman Mr. Oh says his country is concerned, but has no specific information. He adds that the two Koreas have more pressing issues to discuss than past terrorism.
"For example, the North Korean nuclear issue is on the top of the list, and humanitarian aid, and investment to North Korea, and meeting between the separated families in two Koreas [from the 1950-53 Korean War], he said. "We have a lot more urgent issues than to discuss 20-year-old terrorist acts."
Despite Mr. Oh's reassurances, South Korea's intelligence agency, the National Intelligence Service, recently warned of possible North Korean terrorist threats to South Koreans living abroad. Possible targets include South Koreans working with North Korean refugees in China and Southeast Asia.
The South Korean announcement follows the airlift of more than 400 North Korean refugees from Southeast Asia to Seoul. The defections prompted North Korea to accuse South Korea of orchestrating a massive kidnapping operation. Pyongyang also promised that those responsible for helping plan the recent airlift will, "pay a high price."