North Korean leader Kim Jong-un faced an assassination attempt in Pyongyang last year during a power struggle in a military bureau, a Seoul-based intelligence source told the JoongAng Ilbo Tuesday.
“The authorities are paying special attention because the attempt was made in downtown Pyongyang, not during one of Kim’s regional trips outside the capital city,” said the source, who is well-informed about North Korean affairs.
Although the source did not reveal the exact timing of the incident or who was behind the attack, he said the move appeared to be related to the recent fall and rise of a general.
“It appeared that disgruntled people inside the North moved before the time of the demotion of Kim Yong-chol, director of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, in November,” the source said.
Known as one of the closest associates of the young North Korean leader, General Kim was an aggressive commander who was responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan warship in March 2010, which Pyongyang denies being behind, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November that year.
Kim Yong-chol was promoted to four-star general in February 2012 but was demoted to two-star lieutenant general in November. It was revealed that he had bounced back when he appeared in a photo wearing four stars while accompanying Kim Jong-un to a choir performance on Feb. 26.
He appeared on television last week to say that Pyongyang could “cancel the 1953 armistice agreement” that halted the fighting in the Korean War.
The source said an internal power struggle took place last year at the Reconnaissance General Bureau, which oversees South Korea operations. The power struggle even involved an exchange of gunfire, the source said.
Created in 2009, the Reconnaissance General Bureau is considered one of the key pillars of support for the Kim Jong-un regime. It was created by merging intelligence departments of the Workers’ Party and the South Korea operations organs under the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces.
According to the source, officials originally from the operations department and the external liaison department of the Workers’ Party fought over leadership of the Reconnaissance General Bureau and a gun battle broke out.
After he took responsibility for the incident, Kim Yong-chol suffered a demotion to three-star general and a second demotion after Kim Jong-un was faced with an assassination attempt in Pyongyang, the source said. “The people who were purged after the gunfight could be related to the assassination attempt,” he said.
South Korean intelligence authorities believe the latest moves by Kim Jong-un to ratchet up tensions through a series of war threats are linked to the incident last year.
Their analysis is that Kim is siding with military hard-liners to solidify his regime and seek internal unity.
To this end, they say, the North Korean leader has a three-stage scenario to bring about fear of a nuclear war in both the North and South Korea, the source said.
The first stage is issuing war threats against the South and spreading the idea that a war is imminent, the source said.
The second stage is reportedly forcing foreigners in the North to leave the country, warning that their personal safety cannot be guaranteed in time of war. The North would also inform foreign diplomatic missions in Pyongyang to pull out their citizens.
The third step will be a terrorist attack on a public installation in the South such as an airport, or an armed attack like the sinking of the Cheonan, the source said.
“They are afraid that the public will be very agitated by forthcoming food shortages in April,” another official said. “Kim Jong-un doesn’t want to start a war. He just wants to escalate tensions to unite his people and find a way through the tightened sanctions.”
The official also said the North is likely to stage an attack that cannot be conclusively blamed on it.
By Chang Se-jeong, Ser Myo-ja [email@example.com]