Image: Kim Jong Il
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, second left, visits  a steel factory in Jagang province in this photo released on Wednesday. It was unclear when the picture was taken.
updated 12/18/2008 12:30:48 PM ET 2008-12-18T17:30:48

North Korea on Thursday accused South Korea of hiring an agent to track Kim Jong Il and suggested Thursday that the man had planned an assassination attempt before his arrest.

The sensational allegation comes amid a serious worsening of relations between the divided Koreas as well as intense speculation about Kim's health since he reportedly suffered a stroke and had brain surgery in August.

The North's Ministry of State Security identified the arrested man's family name as Ri and said he was trained by the South to gather information about Kim's movements.

"The organization sent him speech and acoustic sensing and pursuit devices for tracking the movement of the top leader and even violent poison in the end," said the statement, which was also read on North Korean state television.

The statement said the "terrorist mission" was ordered by a South Korean intelligence organization "to do harm to the top leader."

The National Intelligence Service — South Korea's main spy agency — said it was checking the claim.

The statement from North Korea, carried by the country's official Korean Central News Agency, did not mention Kim by name, but South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon said the North's state media has before used such wording to refer to him.

Kim of the Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North, said he was in no position to confirm the report.

Worsening relations
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have run high since a pro-U.S., conservative government took office in Seoul in February with a pledge to take a tough line on the North.

Ties worsened earlier this month after the North restricted traffic at the countries' border , leading to the suspension of tours to the ancient North Korean city of Kaesong.

The North's statement also said authorities recently arrested unspecified agents who tried to gather soil, water, tree leaves and dust in the country's major munitions industrial area to gather information on its nuclear program.

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Earlier this month, international talks on the North's nuclear development ended in a stalemate over its refusal to put into writing any commitments on inspecting its past atomic activities.

Though it was impossible to verify the North's espionage claims, the divided states — which fought the 1950-53 Korean War — are known to actively spy on each other and have carried out plots to assassinate each other's leaders in the past.

The North has denied its 66-year-old leader was ever ill, churning out a slew of media reports and photographs depicting him as healthy and active.

More on North Korea

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