North Korea’s key envoy for Europe purged for defections

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North Korea’s key envoy for Europe purged for defections

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Kung Sok-ung

Kung Sok-ung, a North Korean vice minister of foreign affairs and a key figure in Pyongyang’s diplomacy with Europe, has been purged, according to a North Korea source.

Kung was purged and sent to a rural collective farm with his family on the orders of leader Kim Jong-un, the source exclusively told the JoongAng Ilbo Tuesday. Kung was forced to take responsibility for the defection of a North Korean envoy to the United Kingdom, among other reasons.

In July, Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s deputy ambassador in London, defected to South Korea with his family and. He was reported to be the most senior diplomatic defector to the South ever.

“Since late July after Deputy Ambassador Thae Yong-ho’s defection, there has been extensive monitoring of Vice Minister Kung Sok-ung,” said this source. “He took responsibility for the management of the embassies in the European region and was purged.”

Following Thae’s defection, North Korean leader Kim issued orders to tighten the watch over the regime’s envoys overseas.

In addition to Thae’s defection, around the same time, a ranking North Korean official in Vladivostok responsible for earning foreign currency for the regime disappeared with a large sum of cash, according to the source.

The 72-year-old Kung is a graduate of the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies and a recipient in 2005 of the Order of Kim Il Sung, the highest decoration awarded by the country.

He became vice minister of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry in 1998 and for nearly 20 years was responsible for diplomacy with Russia and the rest of Europe. He is considered a veteran diplomat.

North Korean state-run media last reported Kung attended a banquet hosted by the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang on Aug. 16 but has not mentioned him since.

Four other senior diplomats linked with Europe were also said to have been purged along with Kung and are facing severe punishment.

The source said, “I have heard that Kim Kye-gwan, the first vice foreign minister, also faced the possibility of being purged. However, because he is ill and bedridden, he was excluded from the list.”

Kim has been in charge for North Korea’s nuclear-related diplomacy as well as negotiations with the United States. He is said to have been friends with Thae, which enabled Thae to be posted overseas for a prolonged period of time.

The source said, “North Korean authorities are also investigating the situation involving the defection and asylum-seeking of a high-ranking official in Beijing affiliated with the North Korean Health Ministry at the end of last month.”

A chef at the North Korean Embassy in China was also said to have committed suicide recently, he added, adding to a chaotic atmosphere there.

A North Korean representative in Beijing, who previously served as a Health Ministry official — and who would have overseen the management of an exclusive hospital for Kim Jong-un and his family — was reported last week to have defected on Sept. 28, making contact with the Japanese Embassy in China.

Another senior official with the North Korean Embassy in Beijing was also said to have defected in a similar manner.

In an Armed Forces Day address on Oct. 1, President Park Geun-hye urged North Korean soldiers and citizens to defect to the South. In a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Park noted that members of Pyongyang's elite class are abandoning their homeland to find freedom and human rights, and emphasized that their successful settlement in the South is crucial to motivate more North Koreans to follow them.

She ordered her cabinet to prepare for a surge of North Korean defectors.

The South Korean Ministry of Unification was not able to confirm the report of the purge of Kung and the other four diplomats on Wednesday.

Jeong Joon-hee, spokesman for the ministry, said in a briefing on the report, “I will have to confirm it first.”


BY LEE YOUNG-JONG, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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