A North Korean defector allegedly armed with poison needles has been arrested on suspicion of plotting to attack a leading anti-Pyongyang activist, South Korean officials said Friday.
A prosecution official and an intelligence official said that a North Korean defector surnamed Ahn planned to target Park Sang-hak, another North Korean defector who leads a campaign that sends leaflets attacking Pyongyang's leaders to the North. Authorities said they foiled the attack.
Another National Intelligence Service official said Ahn was carrying poison needles when he was arrested. The officials refused to be named because of the continuing investigation.
The investigators refrained from immediately linking the latest case to North Korea and would not comment on local media speculation that Ahn might be an infiltrator similar to one jailed earlier this year.
In the previous case, a South Korean court sentenced a North Korean agent to 10 years in prison for plotting to assassinate Hwang Jang-yop, a high-profile defector and former senior member of the North's ruling party. The agent had come south posing as a defector, but his identity was discovered during an interrogation.
Ahn's arrest comes as North Korea harshly criticizes activists like Park, threatening to fire artillery shells at them for sending leaflets critical of Pyongyang across the heavily armed border between the countries.
Park said Ahn tried to arrange a meeting earlier this month. Ahn was arrested shortly afterward. Park said South Korean authorities told him that Ahn planned to either poison his drink or jab him with a poison needle.
Park is head of Fighters for Free North Korea, an activist group that routinely flies balloons containing leaflets, DVDs, radios and U.S. dollar bills to the North. The group has recently focused its message on a hereditary power succession under way in North Korea.
Park said Ahn once served in North Korea's special forces, citing a conversation they had several years ago. Officials said Ahn is in his 40s.
If charged under the South's National Security Law, Ahn could face the death penalty.
More than 21,000 North Koreans have defected to the South since the 1950-53 Korean war ended with a truce, although the two countries technically remain in a state of war.
Relations between the Koreas deteriorated after conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office in 2008 and tied aid to progress in North Korea's nuclear disarmament.
Tension spiked further when the North bombarded a South Korean front-line island last November, killing four people. Seoul is also angry about the deadly sinking of a warship in March last year that it holds Pyongyang responsible for.
South Korea has also stepped up its crackdown on activities seen as aiding North Korea.
However, animosity has been easing recently. Seoul allowed a group of religious leaders and a prominent orchestra conductor to visit North Korea earlier this month. Another religious delegation is now pushing for a trip to the North.