N. Korean official reportedly defects while stationed in China
October 5, 2016
SEOUL, South Korea — A North Korean official stationed in China and charged with providing medical supplies to a clinic used by leader Kim Jong Un and his family has defected, South Korea’s main news agency reported Wednesday.
If confirmed, it would be the latest in an uptick of high-ranking officials fleeing the communist state amid heightened tensions over its nuclear weapons program.
The North Korean health ministry official disappeared with his family in late September, Yonhap reported, citing an unidentified source familiar with Pyongyang’s affairs. It said the official was in charge of providing medical supplies to a clinic in the North Korean capital that caters to the ruling family.
The official may be seeking to move to South Korea, but no details were available, Yonhap said.
The Unification Ministry in Seoul could not confirm any defection reports, spokesman Jeong Joon-hee told reporters at his regular Wednesday news briefing.
Two officials at North Korea’s diplomatic mission in Beijing were seeking to defect to Japan, said South Korean publication JoongAng Ilbo, but that was denied by the Japanese government,
“There’s no truth in the reports that North Koreans wishing to defect to Japan have contacted the Japanese Embassy in China, and we are not aware of any North Koreans wishing to defect to Japan,” government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said in Tokyo.
He also denied any direct or indirect contacts between Japanese diplomats or agencies and North Korean asylum seekers.
The reports come five days after a North Korean soldier defected to the South by crossing the heavily fortified border that divides the peninsula — only the third soldier to do so in four years.
Thae Yong Ho, the North’s deputy ambassador in London, fled in August with his family to the South.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry also has recorded an increase in overall defections from the North this year, particularly among the elite, which it says have become disillusioned with Kim’s regime.
The defections have fueled speculation that there is growing dissent against Kim’s regime as the young leader has moved to tighten his grip on power five years after taking over from his father, who died of a heart attack.
But many experts say other factors don’t appear to support that conclusion.
Yang Mu-jin, a professor of politics at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, pointed to the lack of unusual activity near the borders or any sign of a popular uprising.
“North Korea doesn’t seem to have any cracks in its leadership power,” he said.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye, meanwhile, called for more North Koreans to abandon their country in a speech Saturday to mark Armed Forces Day.
“We will keep the road open for you to find hope and live a new life,” she said.
Stars and Stripes staffer Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report from Japan.