On Monday, the South Korean government confirmed that a high-ranking North Korean intelligence officer defected to the South last year.
“The colonel, whose name was withheld by the South Korean government, worked for the North Korean military’s General Reconnaissance Bureau. The agency is believed to be behind two deadly attacks blamed on Pyongyang that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010,” Fox News reports. “The General Reconnaissance Bureau also deals in cyberwarfare, and it is widely suspected of being behind the 2014 hack attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment.”
The officer is believed to have given South Korea some details about how his former agency operated. The government in Seoul is still playing its cards close to the vest on the defection, as CNN notes it provided no details beyond confirming that Korean media reports on the situation were essentially accurate.
CNN further quotes South Korea’s Yonhap news agency claiming that this senior colonel is the highest-ranking North Korean military officer known to have defected. Reuters describes his defection as a major “coup” for South Korea, especially since he reportedly specialized in espionage operations against the South.
NPR cites South Korean officials who believe the colonel’s defection could be a sign of significant turbulence in the regime of dictator Kim Jong-un, coming in the context of several other recent defection stories, including a group of restaurant workers who sought asylum in South Korea last week — ostensibly because they resented Pyongyang’s demands for remittance of their foreign currency paychecks — and a North Korean diplomat who defected from Africa last year.
As Fox News reports, information from North Korea is always difficult to confirm, but there seems to be a fairly brutal loyalty purge in progress, with claims that over 70 officials were executed by the Kim regime in 2015.
Not everyone in Seoul is giddy about these developments, as Reuters reports the major liberal opposition party, Minjoo, has accused the government of conservative President Park Geun-hye of releasing stories of North Korean defections to goose voter turnout in the upcoming South Korean parliamentary elections. Park’s government has denied these accusations.
NPR adds that at a press conference held by South Korea’s Unification Ministry on Monday, reporters not only questioned the timing of these defection stories, but actually accused the government of putting words in the mouths of the defectors, specifically the praise for South Korean freedom and ideals voiced by the defecting restaurant workers.
“How do we know this is real? We’re not just writing down whatever you say,” one reporter declared to Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee – whose reply was an understated, “It’s true. I wouldn’t write fiction.”