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Defectors from North changing

Elite are leaving for better livelihoods, studying overseas

Oct 07,2016
More defections are coming from North Korea’s privileged circles, including party, government and military officials.

Some elite families are sending their children off - and telling the Kim Jong-un regime they died.

One 24-year-old student at an elite university in Seoul is such a defector. He left his hometown in the North’s Hamgyong Province in 2011 and reached South Korea via China.

“In North Korea, I came from a fairly affluent household, but I had a dream of learning IT [information technology] in the South,” said the defector, who asked to remain anonymous for the safety of his family, in a phone call with a JoongAng Ilbo reporter Wednesday. “My parents told me to study what I wanted to in the South and sent me here.”

His parents reported to the North Korean government that their child met with an accidental death in China.

Another source in China who conducts business with North Korea recently met with a ranking official of Pyongyang’s ruling Workers’ Party in Beijing.

“The Workers’ Party official made a request to me: ‘North Korea is like a sinking boat. I will send my child, so please take care of that kid,’” the businessman said. “I get such requests from North Korean elites from time to time.”

The pattern of defections are shifting and becoming more diversified. They include people who leave the North for survival, or because of persecution for political or ideological beliefs, to immigration-style defection of whole families who seek an improved livelihood.

Now there are “overseas study” type defections, in which parents send their child to the South to learn. It’s a one-way ticket.

There is a noticeable increase in elite defections, including diplomats.

Last month, two top officials from the North Korean embassy in Beijing reportedly defected with their families.

“In order to protect the defectors, specific details cannot be confirmed,” an intelligence source here said Wednesday, adding, “They are known to have come to the South and are in the process of being investigated.”

It was originally reported that the two defected to Japan.

One of the defectors was a high-ranking official who had served in the North’s Health Ministry and would have been responsible for overseeing Bonghwa Medical Center, which treats North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his family.

Intelligence officials, taking into consideration their positions, see these as immigration-style defections.

In July, Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s deputy ambassador in London, defected to South Korea with his family. At that time Jeong Joon-hee, a spokesman at the South Korean Unification Ministry described Thae’s reason for defection as “longing for a liberal democratic system and for the future of his children.”

North Korean politics expert Kim Young-soo, a professor at Sogang University, described such defections as anomalies.

“North Korea has become desperate because of the sanctions against Pyongyang and is pressuring its elite abroad to find ways to bring back foreign currency,” he said, “and this has lead to the phenomenon of an increase in defections from the elite circle.” He added, “Such a trend will continue.”

North Korea’s population was over 2.51 million as of last year. As of August, there are 29,688 North Koreans who defected to the South, according to the Ministry of Unification.

There are also an estimated 30,000 defectors who reside in a third country following their defections.

One defector from the North Korean military who asked for anonymity said, “There is talk that if you catch all the defectors from North Korea, there won’t be enough prisons to hold them in.”

There are over 30 defectors in South Korea that are part of an alumni network of the prestigious Kim Il Sung University, who were among the elite back home.

Kim Kwang-jin, a defector who leads that alumni network and a research fellow at the South’s Institute for National Security Strategy, said, “The elite circle defecting - putting their lives on the line - indicates there is a crack in the country’s core framework.”

BY CHUN SU-JIN [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]


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