Concerns raised over North Korea terrorism threat

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Concerns raised over North Korea terrorism threat

North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un has ordered the regime’s intelligence agencies to concentrate their capabilities and assets on terrorist attacks in the South, a ruling party lawmaker said Thursday based on an assessment by Seoul’s main spy agency.

The ruling Saenuri Party and the Park Geun-hye administration conducted an emergency meeting Thursday morning on the latest security crisis. The National Intelligence Service (NIS) briefed the ruling party and other government offices on its latest assessment of North Korea.

Following the closed-door session, Rep. Lee Chul-woo, the Saenuri Party’s chief negotiator on the National Intelligence Committee, shared some information with the press.

“According to the NIS, Kim recently ordered the country’s intelligence agencies to actively assemble their terrorism and cyberterrorism capabilities,” he said. “The [North’s] Reconnaissance General Bureau is making preparations, and South Korean intelligence authorities are collecting information about the situation.”

The Reconnaissance General Bureau was created under the North’s Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces in 2009 through a merger of the Workers’ Party and the military’s three spy departments.

The bureau is considered to have been behind a series of deadly attacks against the South, including the sinking of the Cheonan warship in March 2010 and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010. It also led a failed attempt to assassinate North Korea’s highest-profile defector, Hwang Jang-yop, in April 2010.

Hwang died in October 2010 of natural causes.

Kim Yong-chol, a hawkish general, headed the bureau until recently. He now works as the Workers’ Party secretary overseeing inter-Korean affairs.

“North Korea’s terrorist attacks can target activists against the Kim regime, high-profile defectors and government officials,” Lee said, quoting the NIS briefing. “There is a high possibility that targets may be poisoned, that Pyongyang sympathizers may be ordered to conduct attacks or lead abductions of targets to China.”

Journalists critical of North Korea could also be targets, he added.

The NIS said public facilities like subways and shopping malls and state infrastructure like water treatment and power plants could likely be potential targets, according to Lee.

Cyberattacks on the government, media and financial institutions are also feared.

At the meeting, the NIS stressed that it was crucial for the National Assembly to approve a counterterrorism bill as soon as possible. The Blue House also used the latest assessment on North Korean terror threats to renew pressure on lawmakers to pass the bill.

“To protect the people’s lives and property with a clear legal and systemic foundation to prevent terrorism, we strongly demand the National Assembly approve the counterterrorism bill as soon as possible,” said Kim Sung-woo, the president’s senior public affairs secretary.

The South Korean people’s lives and safety, he added, now face the greatest risk.

The bill must be approved “to effectively counter terrorist threats by North Korea and other international groups,” he added, “and it is frustrating to see its passage stalled.”

In asking the lawmakers to put aside their political motivations for the sake of public safety, Kim quoted an old saying: South Korea must not “mend the barn after the cattle has been stolen.”

The ruling and opposition parties as well as the administration have repeatedly introduced counterterrorism bills to the National Assembly over the past 15 years. The first bill was proposed in 2001 in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

No vote has ever taken place, however, and lawmakers fear such a bill would yield too much power to the NIS, which has interfered in domestic politics on multiple occasions.

The latest bill, proposed by the ruling Saenuri Party, seeks to establish a counterterrorism center inside the NIS, a plan that the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea strongly opposes.

National Defense Minister Han Min-koo, First Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung-nam and Kim Jin-sub, first deputy director of the NIS, attended the meeting to brief senior Saenuri lawmakers.

At the meeting, Han reiterated that the joint military exercises scheduled for March between South Korea and the United States would be the largest ever. The Key Resolve exercise, scheduled to begin March 7, will involve 15,000 American troops and powerful U.S. military capabilities, including a combat aviation brigade, a nuclear-powered submarine group and aerial refueling aircraft.

The size of U.S. troops and assets to be deployed this time is double what the United States has sent in past years, Han said.

The Key Resolve exercise is an annual war simulation intended to improve allied readiness to defend South Korea, and coordinate and execute the deployment of U.S. reinforcements in a time of contingency.

According to Han, 290,000 South Korean forces will participate in the combined exercises with American troops, 1.5 times that in previous years.

The upcoming security calendar on the Korean Peninsula indicates a high possibility that North Korea may engage in additional provocations.

The North last year fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the East Sea on March 2, the first day of the Key Resolve exercise. And it fired seven more ground-to-air missiles before the drills ended.

It is also feared that Pyongyang may conduct another nuclear test. The NIS informed the National Intelligence Committee on Feb. 7 that North Korea was capable of conducting a fifth nuclear test at any time.

An analysis by 38 North, a website maintained by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, also said that North Korea may very well conduct another test with little or no warning, pointing to the fact that preparations for the last one went undetected by authorities.

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