S. Korea plans 'decapitation unit' to try to scare North's leaders

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Photo: SOUTH KOREA DEFENSE MINISTRY, HO

The last time South Korea is known to have plotted to assassinate the North Korean leadership, nothing went as planned.

In the late 1960s, after North Korean commandos tried to ransack the presidential palace in Seoul, South Korea secretly trained misfits plucked from prison or off the streets to sneak into North Korea and slit the throat of its leader, Kim Il Sung. When the mission was aborted, the men mutinied.

Now, as Kim's grandson, Kim Jong Un, accelerates his nuclear program, South Korea is again targeting the North's leadership. A day after North Korea conducted its sixth - and by far most powerful - nuclear test this month, the South Korean defense minister, Song Young-moo, told lawmakers in Seoul that a special forces brigade he described as a "decapitation unit" would be established by the end of the year.

The unit, officially known as the Spartan 3000, has not been assigned to literally decapitate North Korean leaders. But that is clearly the menacing message South Korea is trying to send.

Song said the unit could conduct cross-border raids with retooled helicopters and transport planes that could penetrate North Korea at night.

Rarely does a government announce a strategy to assassinate a head of state, but South Korea wants to keep the North on edge and nervous about the consequences of further developing its nuclear arsenal and pressure Pyongyand into accepting President Moon Jae-in's offer of talks.

"The best deterrence we can have, next to having our own nukes, is to make Kim Jong Un fear for his life," said Shin Won-sik, a retired three-star general.

South Korea has now introduced three arms-buildup programs - Kill Chain; the Korea Air and Missile Defense program; and the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation initiative, which includes the decapitation unit.

As word of South Korea's new assassination plans has spread, Kim has used his deputies' cars as decoys to move from place to place, South Korean intelligence officials told lawmakers in June.

Meanwhile, North Korea appears to be stepping up efforts to secure bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which could be used to avoid trade restrictions including new sanctions approved by the U.N. Security Council on Monday.

Hackers from Kim Jong Un's regime are increasing their attacks on cryptocurrency exchanges in South Korea and related sites, according to a new report from security researcher FireEye Inc. They also breached an English-language bitcoin news website and collected bitcoin ransom payments from global victims of the malware WannaCry, according to the researcher.

Kim's apparent interest in cryptocurrencies comes amid rising prices and popularity. With tightening sanctions and usage of cryptocurrencies broadening, security experts say North Korea's embrace of digital cash will only increase.

Treasury Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing Marshall Billingslea displayed satellite photos to demonstrate North Korea's deceptive shipping practices. He focused in particular on how it masks exports of coal that were banned in August after the North tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles.

In one example, a North Korean ship registered in St. Kitts and Nevis was said to have sailed from China to North Korea, turning off its transponder to conceal its location as it loaded coal. The ship then docked in Vladivostok, Russia, before finally going to China to presumably unload its cargo.

China accounts for 90 percent of North Korea's external trade.

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