SEOUL • A North Korean embassy official in Beijing has defected, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said yesterday, while a separate report suggested two embassy staff had sought asylum with the Japanese mission there.
If confirmed, it would mark the latest in a recent series of high-profile North Korean defections that some observers see as a sign of growing instability within the leadership in Pyongyang.
Yonhap, quoting an anonymous source "familiar with Pyongyang affairs", said the official - stationed in the Beijing embassy but attached to the North Korean Health Ministry - had disappeared with his family late last month.
The source said the official was responsible for sourcing medical supplies for a clinic in Pyongyang that looks after the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his family.
South Korea's Unification Ministry, which has a general policy of not commenting on defections, especially by senior officials, said it was unable to confirm the report.
In a separate report, South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo said two senior staff at the North Korean embassy in Beijing had asked for asylum in Japan. The newspaper cited an anonymous source as saying the two officials were not diplomats but attached to a North Korean government office.
Japan's top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga denied that any approach had been made to the Japanese mission. "There's no truth in the reports that North Korean asylum seekers contacted the Japanese embassy, and we're not aware of any situation involving North Koreans hoping to defect to Japan," Mr Suga told a regular press conference.
North Korea has been rocked by a number of high-level defections, most recently that of its deputy ambassador to Britain who fled to South Korea in a major propaganda victory for Seoul. Mr Thae Yong Ho defected in August, making him one of the highest-ranking North Koreans to come to South Korea.
In a speech last Saturday to mark Armed Forces Day, South Korean President Park Geun Hye made a direct appeal to more North Koreans to abandon their country. "There have been persistent defections, even by North Korean elite who have been supporting the regime," she said. "Come to the free land of the Republic of Korea at any time."
Her comments drew criticism from the opposition for provoking North Korea unnecessarily. Mr Woo Sang Ho of the main opposition Minjoo Party said Ms Park's call for mass defections would lead to a refugee crisis, while Mr Park Jie Won, the acting head of the opposition People's Party, said in a Facebook post: "It would have touched the North and the world better if she proposed to send rice to the flood-stricken North, rather than issuing a stern message."
Ties between the two Koreas are plumbing new lows, with Seoul holding to a hard line with Pyongyang in the wake of two nuclear tests and numerous missile launches this year.