SEOUL • South Korea yesterday said a North Korean two-star officer in charge of spy operations and a diplomat posted in an African nation have defected to the South.
The army colonel had handled espionage targeting South Korea at the North's General Bureau of Reconnaissance before arriving in Seoul last year, the South's Yonhap news agency said.
Unification and defence ministry spokesmen in Seoul confirmed the report but declined to give details such as the officer's name and exact date of defection.
"He is the highest-level military official to have ever defected to the South," said a government official quoted by Yonhap. The officer is believed to have given details about the spy bureau's operations against South Korea to the authorities in Seoul, the unidentified official said.
The North set up the General Bureau of Reconnaissance in 2009, consolidating several intelligence agencies to streamline operations aimed at the South.
Its head, General Kim Yong Chol, is accused by the South of being behind the 2010 torpedo attack against the South that sunk a navy ship and killed 46 sailors. The North denies any responsibility for the sinking.
The bureau is also known to operate an elite team of computer specialists working to infiltrate the networks of the South and other countries and conduct cyber attacks against key institutions.
The Unification Ministry, which handles North Korea issues, also said that a senior diplomat who was posted in an African country had defected to the South last year with his family.
The news came days after a group of 13 North Koreans working at a state-run restaurant outside the country arrived in the South in a rare mass defection.
It was the first time that North Koreans working at the same restaurant defected as a group, reported JoongAng Ilbo. In previous cases, North Koreans either defect individually or with their family members.
The group - one male manager and a dozen women - arrived in the South on Thursday.
They had reportedly been working at a restaurant in China's south-eastern port city of Ningbo before coming to the South through a third country in South-east Asia.
North Korea watchers quoted by South Korean media say that more defections of North Korean employees at Pyongyang's overseas restaurants, embassies and trading firms to the South could follow.
These workers are struggling to earn foreign currency for the North's regime as international sanctions against North Korea for its recent nuclear and missile tests take effect, reported JoongAng Ilbo.
South Korea has urged its citizens not to patronise North Korean restaurants in China and South-east Asian nations in a bid to hit the source of foreign currency for Pyongyang.
Seoul rarely confirms defections by North Koreans, especially senior officials, citing the potential threat to their safety. It also does not want to damage diplomatic relations with the countries through which they travel.
The highly unusual disclosures prompted Seoul's main opposition party to accuse the government of trying to rally support among conservatives before Wednesday's parliamentary elections.
The unification and defence ministries denied political motives, saying the disclosures were made in the public interest.
About 29,000 people had fled North Korea and arrived in the South as of March, including 1,276 last year, with numbers declining since a 2009 peak.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS