More than 20 senior members of the North Korean regime have defected to Seoul this year, up from eight in 2013, according to reports.
The defectors include a high-ranking officer of the People’s Army politburo, which oversees the country’s military. The officer went to South Korea rather than return to Pyongyang after he was posted to Beijing, according to the South Korean Chosun Ilbo newspaper.
The others were diplomats stationed abroad, and at least one defector was a member of the General Bureau of Reconnaissance, which is believed to conduct operations against South Korea.
Analysts believe other senior North Koreans have opted to seek refuge in the United States and Europe.
The spike in defections was reported by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) to the National Assembly this week.
The number of defectors from North Korea’s “elite” class is up from eight in 2013 and 18 last year, suggesting that more of Kim Jong-un’s most trusted servants are seizing opportunities to flee. “It is clear that Mr Kim’s rule is becoming increasingly unstable,” said Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University and an authority on North Korea.
“Defections of senior people first began after the arrest and execution of Jang Song-thaek, Mr Kim’s uncle and mentor, in December 2013,” he said. “Many decided to get out simply because they feared they were to be next, and that fear is clearly lingering.”
Prof Shigemura believes the North Korean military is becoming restless, particularly since Pyongyang backed down from plans to launch an
intercontinental missile or to carry out an underground nuclear test earlier this month to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party.
The defectors’ desperation is underlined by the fact that they are abandoning family members who are effectively held hostage in Pyongyang during their overseas postings.
“Mr Kim has purged a lot of people since he came to power – which is not really a surprise as that’s what a Stalinist system is all about – but to leave their families, these defectors must have been certain that they would be executed if they returned home,” Prof Shigemura said.
Among recent high-profile defectors is Yun Tae-hyong, a senior representative of the Joson Daesong Bank, who disappeared in the Russian Far East last year with around $5?million (pounds 3?million) of Mr Kim’s “revolutionary fund”. South Korean authorities wanted to interview Mr Yun about illegal transactions carried out by the North Korean regime and identify other individuals tasked with earning hard currency to fund Mr Kim’s lavish lifestyle.
In June this year, a North Korean scientist involved in biological and chemical weapons programmes defected to Finland, reportedly with evidence of tests carried out on people.
He was carrying an electronic data-storage device containing information on the use of human beings to test biological and chemical weapons, according to a human rights group.
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