North Korea has purged a vice foreign minister, punishing the 72-year-old and his family with farm work after the nation’s No. 2 official in London defected this summer, South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said Wednesday.
The daily said Kung Sok Ung, 72, and four other ranking officials in charge of European affairs were expelled from Pyongyang on the orders of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“Since late July, after deputy ambassador Thae Yong Ho’s defection, there has been extensive monitoring of Vice Minister Kung Sok Ung,” the JoongAng Ilbo quoted a source as saying. “He took responsibility for the management of the embassies in the European region and was purged.”
It said Kung oversaw relations with Russia and Europe for nearly 20 years.
South Korea has this month drawn attention to a flurry of defections by people close to the Kim regime. This stands in contrast with a decade ago, when most defectors were starving laborers from the lower rungs of the socialist ladder.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye has ordered a revamp of procedures for defectors, saying how well North Koreans resettle in the South should be seen as a “test ground for reunification,” the Yonhap news agency said Tuesday.
“While the defections by North Korean elites as well as regular citizens are on the rise, the motivations for their defections have become varied, with some fleeing their country with a sense of despair about lack of their own prospects or for their children’s future,” Park said.
The number of defections peaked at 2,914 in 2009, but tighter border controls and internal surveillance have since reduced the flow, Yonhap said.
Before 2001, nearly 70 percent of those fleeing cited hunger, but almost 88 percent now cite noneconomic reasons such as surveillance and fear, the news agency said.
Among those now fleeing to freedom are significant numbers of senior officials.
“Since the execution of Kim’s uncle Jang Song Thaek in 2013, defections by the privileged class have risen due to the North’s leader’s reign of terror,” Yonhap on Sunday quoted Sohn Kwang-joo, who heads the South’s defector resettlement agency, as saying.
Recent reported defections illustrate this. On Oct. 5, Japan was said to be handling a request for asylum by a senior North Korean official in Beijing. Tokyo denied the reports, and South Korean media said the official’s final destination was likely to be Seoul.
A junior diplomat at Pyongyang’s trade mission in Russia fled with his family in July.
And a senior official at the North’s spy agency escaped to the South last year, Yonhap said Wednesday, citing an unidentified source.
“A rise in immigration-style defections seems to be influenced by more North Koreans coming in contact with South Korean culture and information,” Yonhap quoted an official as saying.
The lure of TV romances is coupled with the risk of confronting the regime: Pyongyang is reported to have executed more than 100 dissenting state, party and military officials since Kim came to power in late 2011.
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