Two high-ranking officials from the North Korean embassy in Beijing - including a man who had overseen leader Kim Jong-un’s health care - defected with their families last month, a source well-informed on North Korea revealed.
“On Sept. 28, a heavyweight representative in North Korea’s mission in Beijing - who came from the Health Ministry - escaped with his wife and daughter,” the source exclusively told the JoongAng Ilbo on Tuesday. “This family made contact with the Japanese Embassy in China to begin the procedure to head to Japan.”
The official has relatives in Japan, which was why he chose to defect to Tokyo rather than Seoul.
As a high-ranking Health Ministry official, he would have overseen the Bonghwa Medical Center, which treats North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his family, as well as the Namsan Hospital and the Red Cross Hospital.
He was in charge of procurement and acquisition of drugs and medical equipment for Kim’s health, according to the source.
“Around the same time, another senior official at the Beijing mission also defected with his family,” he added. “This official also hoped to head to Japan, and Chinese and Japanese authorities negotiated this.”
South Korean authorities are aware of the defections and are working on bringing the defectors to Seoul, the source said.
Such officials are not diplomats with the North Korean Embassy in China. They handle trade, economic cooperation and other exchanges in the country they reside in.
The two defectors and their families resided in the North Korean Embassy housing.
“Beijing is the most coveted place to work among key members of North Korea’s elite,” said a South Korean government official. “Beijing is the heart of North Korea’s diplomacy, so a North Korean defection and asylum-seeking situation there will inevitably be a big blow to Pyongyang.”
“Two high-ranking officials of a North Korean mission defecting almost simultaneously is an unheard of event,” the North Korea source added.
South Korea’s Ministry of Unification was not able to confirm the defections Wednesday.
“There is nothing that we can confirm,” Jeong Joon-hee, spokesman of the Unification Ministry, told reporters.
In July, Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s deputy ambassador in London, defected to South Korea with his family. He was one of the most senior North Koreans to defect.
Following Thae’s defection, North Korean leader Kim issued orders to tighten the watch over the regime’s envoys overseas.
In an Armed Forces Day address on Saturday, President Park Geun-hye urged North Korean soldiers and citizens to defect to the South, and said, “We will leave the path open for the North Korean people to find hope and life. Come to the free land of the Republic of Korea at any time.”
The remarks were met by a strong backlash by Pyongyang through its state media.
A Blue House official said Wednesday on the defection report, “If the content of the report is true, this would mean a close aide in the North Korean government has defected, so we are paying close attention.”
BY LEE YOUNG-JONG, SARAH KIM [email@example.com]