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Rumors of asylum seekers persist

Rumors of asylum seekers persist

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Published : 2013-12-22 20:15
Updated : 2013-12-22 20:15

After the recent execution of Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, rumors of his close associates seeking asylum overseas persist, despite Seoul’s repeated denials.

Media reports say one of Jang’s confidants fled the North to China with crucial intelligence about the development of Pyongyang’s nuclear program and Kim’s secret overseas funds.

Others say dozens of North Korean officials and their families are being questioned by the Korean embassy in China after they crossed the border to defect to the South for fear of punishment for their connections to Jang.

Apparently mindful of the unceasing rumors that could provoke the unpredictable regime, Seoul officially denied the rumors on Thursday.

“We once again reaffirm the rumors are not true,” Unification Ministry spokesperson Kim Eui-do told reporters. “We make this announcement after consultations with all related government agencies at the policy coordination meeting.”

The rumors about asylum seekers spread as Seoul officials said Pyongyang is still in the process of purging or executing those with close ties to Jang, who was executed on Dec. 12 for conspiring to subvert the regime.

Given the large network of people that Jang established across all sectors of society, including the ruling Workers’ Party, the military and state organs, some observers said a number of senior officials could attempt to defect in droves.

But Seoul’s repeated denials or refusals to confirm them sparked speculation that the government might have trouble sharing intelligence among the ministries of foreign affairs, defense and unification, and the National Intelligence Service.

Some observers said the government could be employing a “strategic silence,” as verifying the rumors could further strain inter-Korean ties and threaten the safety of the defectors and their family members still in the North.

Seoul has so far taken great caution over the handling of North Korean defectors, particularly high-profile political figures. When Hwang Jang-yop, a former secretary of the North’s ruling party, defected to Seoul in 1997, the government announced his defection only after he touched down here.

Observers also said that given that the defection to the South via China requires assistance from Beijing, which has traditionally kept close ties to Pyongyang, the process should be carried out in a low-key manner.

Should the rumors be true, defectors could become Seoul’s main sources of intelligence about the inner workings of the North Korean leadership, which analysts say is undergoing shifts following the execution of Jang.

For the short term, purges and executions of officials, political and financial rewards to stalwart followers and a massive campaign to idolize the dynastic ruler are expected to help consolidate Kim’s power.

But Kim’s reign of terror, coupled with deepening poverty and international isolation, could worsen public discontent and destabilize the regime in the long run, observers said.

Meanwhile, in addition to Jang’s two confidants, Ri Yong-ha and Jang Su-gil, five more senior officials of the ruling party appear to have been executed in connection with Jang’s wrongdoings, according to intelligence officials.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)

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