Two North Korea officials including army colonel defected last year: Seoul

South Korean soldiers on patrol near the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas in Paju on March 21, 2016.
South Korean soldiers on patrol near the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas in Paju on March 21, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS) - Two senior North Korean officials, including an army colonel specialising in espionage against the South, defected to South Korea last year, the Seoul government said on Monday (April 11).

News of the defections followed Friday’s announcement by Seoul that 13 workers at a restaurant run by the North in an undisclosed third country had defected as a group, arriving in the South a day earlier.

On Monday, the South’s Unification and Defence Ministries said a North Korean army colonel defected last year and had been granted political asylum. He had worked in the secretive General Reconnaissance Bureau, which is focused on espionage activities against the South.

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 disclosures confirmed earlier reports in the South Korean media. The South Korean government’s public acknowledgement of defections is unusual.

The main liberal opposition Minjoo Party on Monday accused the government of conservative President Park Geun Hye of trying to influence conservative voter turnout ahead of Wednesday’s parliamentary elections by announcing the defection of the restaurant workers last week.

Both ministries denied suggestions that Monday’s revelations were made for domestic political reasons and said disclosing the defections was 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.

Earlier on Monday, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said the North Korean colonel specialised in anti-South espionage operations before defecting and had divulged the nature of his work to South Korean authorities while in the North.

South Korean officials declined to commment on that or give further details.

The defection of a high-ranking officer in the General Reconnaissance Bureau would be a coup for Seoul.

The North set up the bureau 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 to conduct cyber attacks against key institutions.