At least seven North Korean diplomats – including Thae Yong Ho – defected and arrived in South Korea this year according to unnamed local officials, South Korean media outlet the JoongAng Ilbo said on Friday.
A diplomat with his family fled from Bulgaria and arrived in the South earlier this year, the JoongAng said, with other diplomats from East Asia seeking asylum in June and July.
In April, another diplomat serving as a Taekwondo instructor in Asia defected to the South, the JoongAng added, while in early July a diplomat arrived from Russia..
“We are aware of similar cases in additional countries,” a diplomat from a European Union (EU) nation told NK News on Tuesday about the quality of the report, on condition of anonymity.
Despite the claims, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MoU) declined to comment about the JoongAng’s report during a regular news briefing on Friday.
But a TV Chosun report last week said a Russian official – possibly the one mentioned by the Joongang – may have been North Korean Third Secretary Kim Chol Song of Saint Petersburg, who it claimed arrived in Seoul in early July.
That report came out after the MoU last Wednesday confirmed that North Korean diplomat Thae Yong Ho had defected from his post in London and arrived in South Korea.
Thae, who was a Minister level position of North’s embassy in London, is the highest profile defector diplomat among those who have fled from the North.
BEGINNING OF THE END?
On Monday, South Korean President Park Geun-hye described the defection of Thae as a sign of “grave rupture” that was increasing the likelihood of “unrest in the North’s regime”.
But while reports of elite defections currently appear to be on the increase, one Seoul-based North Korean observer cautioned President Park’s analysis as over-stated.
Among (these) defectors, there has been no prominent figure who could strike a blow to the North’s leadership,” Cheong Seong-chang, senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute told NK News. “It’s an overestimation of defectors if we understand that their asylum can destabilize the North’s regime.”
He added that the 1997 defection of Hwang Jang Yop, once a linchpin among elites in Pyongyang, didn’t have strong repercussions for the-then Kim Jong Il regime.
Another North Korean expert said the reports were not a sign of regime collapse, but more likely an indication of “weakening cohesion among elite classes.”
“It’s too early to discuss a regime collapse since all the defections (so far) have been elites who worked outside the North’s society,” said Lim Jae-cheon, a professor at the North Korean studies department of Korea University.
“There has been no defection case of a high-profile official working inside the country based on the media reports until now.”
Both experts said that the implementation of recent UN Security Council sanctions may have been one determining factor in understanding the recent flurry of diplomatic defections.
Jeong said the salaries of DPRK diplomats are not high, meaning many of them have to make ends meet by sharing apartments, for example. And such personal economic difficulties may have pushed some of them to defect, he said.
“As the international community has strengthened sanctions against the North and surveillance of North Korean diplomats has increased, they can no longer make foreign currency as they did in the past,” Cheong said, citing old tactics such as the selling of counterfeit cigarettes or liquors.
Heightened pressure from the North Korean regime may have also driven them to the brink, the Korea University professor said.
“Kim Jong Un has had trouble in securing government funds after (the latest) sanctions, making the North’s foreign economic activities hard,” said Lim. “So, he has increased the pressure on diplomats abroad in charge of funds management.”
Lim added that Kim Jong Un’s leadership style was having a domino effect on the number of defection cases, which he said were now much larger than the era of the late leader Kim Il Sung
“After taking office, Kim tends to purge or dismiss those who didn’t obey him, instead of appeasing them,” said Lim, adding that the “high-handed leadership style” may be an influence.
Members of the UN Security Council in March unanimously adopted Resolution 2270 to condemn the North’s fourth nuclear test on January 6. It is is the toughest-ever sanctions regime to target Pyongyang.
Main picture: Korean Air plane on tarmac at Incheon Airport, 2012, Wikimedia Commons