News emerged of an assassination plot by North Korea on a South Korean political activist on Friday 16th September. A man who had apparently defected to South Korea in the 1990’s was arrested by authorities for plotting to kill the activist with a poison tipped needle. If proven the assassin will have been an intelligence agent of the kind you read in spy novels – someone sent on a long term mission to spy and fight the enemy from behind its own lines.
James Bond is far too obvious. If he existed the media would be all over him like a rash, and his actions would have caused wars the world over. If a country’s intelligence services can be proven to have made a murder attempt then there is usually massive diplomatic and sometimes military response.
In the UK in 2006 former Russian KGB agent Alexander Litvenenko was poisoned with a radioactive substance called Polonium. He appeared in the media while he was dying in hospital, for some time doctors not having a clue what he was dying of. Toxicology tests would cause diplomatic reactions that exist to this day.
Polonium of this type can only be found in one nuclear reactor in the world – in Russia. The UK turned round and basically said ‘we know it is you lot. Now send your agent over so we can try him’. Working remotely, our intelligence services even worked out who they think spiked Litvenenko’s tea! The Russians fell behind their diplomatic wall, saying that under their Constitution they could not deport a Russian national to trial.
The UK responded by treating Russia with the contempt they showed the USSR in the Cold War. Last month Prime Minister David Cameron visited Russia with an olive branch. Russia really wanted intelligence and police cooperation for their antiterror operations. 'Not a snowball’s hope in Hell', was the essential response, 'unless we can have our suspected murderer and put him to trial'. Russia responded with their Constitution defence, and so diplomatic relations remain ice cool.
In 1978 a Bulgarian dissident was murdered by the KGB. That was so subtle they still don’t know who exactly did it. Just like you may read in a good spy novel, the KGB made a dart with the neurotoxin Ricin in it, and the agent fired it into the dissident from the tip of an umbrella in London. The victim was known to the authorities for his presence in the UK, and why he was here. Unfortunately, forensics weren’t up to the standards of today and ricin is easily extracted from castor oil beans, so the only thing the intelligence services could say for certain was that the KGB did it.
The reaction then was nothing really new. We were at war with the USSR in those days. Right up until the 1980’s nations on both sides of the Iron Curtain were ready to nuke each other at worst, but all the time were spying on each other at every level they could.
The North Korean situation is the last remnants of the Communist / Capitalist power struggle of any immediate danger that remain. (We could argue China and the US are at it, that China remains a threat to western interests but that's a different story). If North Korea invaded South Korea, China has a military pact with the North and the USA a military pact with the South. A million soldiers on each side of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) are ready to fight each other. World War 3 would break out.
However, as a parent keeps a close reign on a particularly troublesome child, China controls North Korea’s belligerence within reason. The USA gives it food aid (even as it sabre rattles to get attention) and things aren’t as worrying across that border as North Korea would want you to think. Like a child that will one day end up in reform school, it is kept well in check. Yes, its neighbours get the odd black eye as it throws a tantrum, but you basically have the US and China’s fat arses on its back and it won’t be able to stand up and fight – no matter how it tries to provoke.