Pyongyang envoy in Africa defected in August

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Pyongyang envoy in Africa defected in August

A North Korean diplomat based in Ethiopia defected to South Korea last summer after apparently buckling under growing pressure to send more cash back to his homeland, government sources said.

The news was withheld to avoid embarrassing Pyongyang as relations warmed between the North and South.

“A North Korean diplomat sought asylum about two months ago, and he is currently undergoing investigation in the South,” a source from the intelligence community told the JoongAng Ilbo Thursday.

The diplomat was a member of North Korea’s trade representative office in Ethiopia, but the source refused to elaborate on his rank or any other details.

It was also unconfirmed if the diplomat’s family defected with him.

Another government source said the diplomat is not of a very high level. Even so, the government saw fit to keep the news from the public.

“He came to the South when the two Koreas were having negotiations on the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang tours,” the source said. “So the government handled it quietly.”

Relations between the two Koreas started to thaw in August as they discussed resumption of operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Talks also took place about reunions of families separated during the 1950-53 Korean War.

It was not the first time for a North Korean based in Ethiopia to seek asylum in the South. In October 2009, a 43-year-old doctor who worked for the North Korean embassy in the African nation applied for asylum at the South Korean embassy.

The North protested by surrounding the South Korean embassy in Addis Ababa with its cars.

Sources from the intelligence community said the defection was linked to the North’s most recent pressure on its diplomats to raise cash for the homeland after tightened international sanctions.

Diplomats are important sources of foreign exchange for North Korea. They have used diplomatic pouches to smuggle cash, luxury goods and drugs into the North.

“Because of sanctions, the foreign currency earning quota for North Koreans living overseas was increased,” said Do Hee-yoon of the Citizens’ Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees. “It makes even the elite group feel uneasy.”

Sources also said the diplomat’s defection may have prompted Pyongyang’s recent order to diplomats to send many of their children back home. In September, the North ordered diplomats to send all their children, except for one per family, home by the end of September. It recanted the order later.

Japan’s Sankei Shimbun Newspaper reported that Pyongyang feared that its citizens studying abroad would become critical of the regime or defect to other countries. The North was forced to withdraw the order because so many diplomats resisted, the newspaper reported.

As of now, the highest North Korean diplomat to defect to the South was Hong Sun-kyong, who worked as a councilor in the Embassy of North Korea in Thailand. Hong, along with three members of his family, defected in October 2000.

In March 2006, a North Korean state-run company official stationed in Europe defected to the South with his family through the South Korean Embassy in Hungary.

BY JEONG WON-YEOP [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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