South Korea jails North Korean 'assassination plotters'

Hwang Jang Yop speaking in Washington DC, US (30 March 2010)
Image caption North Korea appeared to have threatened Mr Hwang before

A South Korean court has jailed two North Koreans for plotting to assassinate a high-ranking defector to the South, Hwang Jang-yop.

Prosecutors had asked for 15-year sentences, but the court jailed the two men for 10 years each.

The two men, identified only as Kim and Tong, had admitted pretending to be defectors with a secret mission to kill Mr Hwang.

North Korea has denied the existence of any such plot.

The judge said a lesser sentence had been decided because the two men, both aged 36, came from a state where they had no choice but to do as they were told.

As soon as their fake identities had been exposed, the two men had cooperated fully with the investigation.

"The defendants admit all the charges, and testimony from other defectors and former agents verified their statements" about their identities and mission, said senior judge Cho Han-Chang.

"Had the defendants succeeded in taking root here, they would have posed a very serious threat to Hwang's life."

Hwang Jang-yop was a very senior member of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party before his defection in 1997.

He lives under heavy police protection at an undisclosed location in South Korea and has remained a harsh critic of Pyongyang.

North Korea has accused South Korea of fabricating the plot in order to stoke tensions on the peninsula.

Tensions are high between the two countries as investigations continue into what sank a South Korean warship in March, with the loss of 46 lives.

Officials say the Cheonan was sunk by an underwater explosion, but have been careful to avoid pointing the finger at North Korea.

However, earlier this week, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak described the incident as "a grave international issue involving inter-Korean relations".

North and South Korea are still technically at war, since the 1950-53 conflict ended without a peace treaty.

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