North Korea could be facing its most serious defection in 15 years as South Korean media said on Friday that a man who managed funds for the ousted uncle of leader Kim Jong Un had fled the isolated country and sought asylum in South Korea.
The aide, who was not named, was being protected by South Korean officials in a secret location in China, cable news network YTN and Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper said, citing sources familiar with the matter.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) had no knowledge of the defection, lawmakers said in Seoul after they were briefed by the head of the spy agency.
YTN said the man managed funds for Jang Song Thaek, whose marriage to Kim’s aunt and proximity to the young leader made him one of the most powerful men in North Korea.
Jang was relieved of his posts last month, according to the NIS, and the television network said the sacking could have followed the aide’s defection.
YTN said the aide also had knowledge of funds belonging to Kim and his father, former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. If true, the defection would likely be the first time in 15 years a significant insider from the Pyongyang regime has switched sides.
A spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry, Kim Eui-do, and officials at the Foreign Ministry said the defection report could not be confirmed.
Jung Chung-rae, a member of the South Korean parliament’s Intelligence Committee, told reporters the intelligence service had said it did not know about the defection, but that two of Jang’s relatives who were serving in embassies overseas had been recalled.
Jang himself is alive and appears to be safe, South Korean officials have said.
Jang has survived previous purges and official displeasure, thanks largely to his sometimes tempestuous marriage to Kim Kyong Hui, the daughter of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung.