Recently executed North Korean spy chief Ryu Kyong planned and orchestrated the abduction of two female U.S. journalists on March 17, 2009, it emerged on Sunday.
Ryu, who served as the deputy director of North Korea's State Security Department, obtained intelligence that Laura Ling and Euna Lee, journalists working for Current TV, were planning to visit the North Korean border as part of their report on defectors.
He then used his overseas operatives to bribe an ethnic Korean guide in China to lead the two women into the hands of their abductors. The guide took Ling and Lee to a point on the banks of the Duman (or Tumen) River, where they were dragged across the border into North Korea.
The abduction, which occurred just after U.S. President Barack Obama took office, prompted the White House to dispatch former U.S. President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang in August of that year. It also served as a propaganda coup for Pyongyang, which boasted that a former U.S. leader had to "bow before General Kim Jong-il and beg for forgiveness." By successfully carrying out the mission, Ryu was subsequently hailed as a national hero.
Teams of overseas operatives, many of which had been in place for years, were mobilized in September of 2002 following the visit to North Korea by former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Many had been tasked with missions aimed at creating favorable diplomatic conditions for the summit. Boosted by the success of the summit, the State Security Department expanded the missions of its overseas operatives until they had created a vast intelligence network in China.
South Korean intelligence officials are now trying to ascertain why Ryu, one of Kim Jong-il's closest and most trusted aides, ended up being purged, especially in light of his achievements in prompting former and incumbent U.S. and Japanese leaders to visit North Korea.
"The official charge made against Ryu was that he was corrupt and that he accepted bribes," an intelligence source said on Sunday. "But it is doubtful that a key intelligence official in the State Security Department, which is responsible for propping up the North Korean regime, was not just demoted, but executed on such charges."
For some, however, Ryu's demise came as little surprise in the context of its leader's despotic rule. "The execution of Ryu Kyong is simply part of Kim Jong-il's reign of terror," said one high-ranking North Korean defector. "When times get tough, Kim Jong-il tends to resort to bloody purges."
"We need to focus on the fact that the State Security Department is responsible for the transfer of power, and the execution of Ryu took place during this power transfer," he added. "Kim seems to have wanted to remind people that even the State Security Department is not beyond his reach."