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N. Korea Defections Rise, but Road to the West Gets Harder

The elite are fleeing to China, but many end up being repatriated by Beijing, activists say.

May 18, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — North Korean military officers, government bureaucrats and scientists are increasingly slipping into China but are having difficulty finding their way to safety in the West, according to human rights activists who work with defectors.

Among North Koreans who have defected in recent months are a missile scientist, a naval officer claiming to have knowledge of his country's submarine fleet and a mathematician specializing in nuclear detonations. On Saturday, there were reports that a senior aide to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had left the country and was seeking asylum in the United States.

"The bureaucrats, the security officials are all very demoralized. If they have a chance to get out, they will jump at it," said Kim Sang Hun, a South Korean human rights activist who has worked undercover for many years helping defectors across the China-North Korea border.

A report Saturday by the South Korean news agency Yonhap said that 69-year-old Gil Jae Kyong, vice director of the Secretariat for the North Korean leader, had defected because of his involvement with a North Korean-owned ship carrying heroin that was captured in Australia last month. Gil was also reported to have helped handle funds belonging to Kim and his family.

South Korean security officials would neither confirm nor deny Gil's defection Saturday.

Although as many as 300,000 North Koreans have managed to get into China in recent years, activists say the refugee population has lately included many more members of the elite. The activists interpret that as a sign of economic disarray in North Korea and of dissatisfaction with the leadership.

"You have a situation where engineers and scientists are wandering around the countryside looking for work fixing televisions to get money," said Michael Horowitz, a former Reagan administration official who works with refugees.

Along with German physician Norbert Vollertsen, a well-known activist, Horowitz held a news conference last week calling for greater efforts by the United States to encourage high-ranking North Koreans to defect. Horowitz said he believes such a strategy could weaken the North's military establishment so it could not continue building a nuclear arsenal.

"There won't be anybody left to push the button on Kim Jong Il's orders," said Horowitz, who works out of the Washington office of the Hudson Institute think tank.

The difficulty in getting defectors to the West lies largely in China, which does not grant refugee status to North Koreans. The Chinese government works closely with North Korean security to repatriate defectors and prosecute anyone who might be helping them. Kim Hee Tae, a 31-year-old South Korean who was a student at Columbia University in New York, went on trial last week in the Chinese city of Yanji on charges that he illegally helped North Koreans.

On Saturday, the newspaper the Australian published excerpts from documents written by refugee activists describing some of the better-connected North Koreans who have defected.

In a letter pleading for political asylum that the paper obtained, one 44-year-old said he had worked in a military construction unit that built missile launch pads.

"I could see that North Korean people had been living in darkness and misery, and I regretted my fate of having lived there," the defector said.

Another defector said he had been a colonel at a military hospital and had firsthand knowledge of biological experiments conducted on political prisoners. A third said he had been vice captain of a Russian-built submarine armed with nuclear missiles.

North Korea experts say that defectors often exaggerate what they know in hopes of obtaining political asylum in either South Korea or a Western country.

"They almost always lie somewhat because they think they won't get any money otherwise," said Joo Sung Ha, a North Korean defector who writes for Donghwa Shinmun, a South Korean newspaper for defectors. "But there are hundreds of people coming out, and in those groups you do find many military officers and former officers who are very knowledgeable."

If the reports of his defection are confirmed, Gil will be the most senior official to have escaped from North Korea in at least five years.

Gil has been publicly linked to some of the North's more unsavory activities to raise money. While stationed as a diplomat in Europe in 1976, he was implicated in a drug deal and expelled. He was also kicked out of Russia for using counterfeit U.S. dollars.

The last time a North Korean official of his level defected was 1997, when Hwang Jang Yop, a secretary of the ruling Workers' Party, fled.


Chi Jung Nam of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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