Around 10 citizens from North Korea working as foreign currency earners for the Kim Jong Un regime across the border in China have been “forcibly returned” home by authorities, according to a source, amid reports of North Korean officials defecting in droves.
North Korea’s National Security Agency (NSA) summoned the workers as part of an investigation into a recent flood of high-ranking officials seeking asylum, the source from inside North Korea with knowledge of the country’s affairs in China told RFA’s Korean Service.
“Resident employees who work in Shenyang (in northeastern China’s Liaoning province) earning foreign currency were recalled in the last ten days of June by the North Korean government,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“It was not their will to go back. They were forcibly returned to their own country.”
According to the source, foreign currency earners are regularly summoned home at the end of each year for business purposes, but the decision to have them return in June was unprecedented.
“This time, the North Korean government called particular people out and summoned them. It must have been an arrest,” he said.
The order to return to North Korea was delivered to several branch offices in Chinese cities including Shenyang, the capital Beijing and Yanji, in eastern China’s Jilin province, the source said, adding that the NSA appeared to be exclusively targeting foreign currency earners.
North Korea has sent tens of thousands its citizens abroad to work in various factories since the 1980s to raise money for its regime, which is under heavy sanctions from the United Nations as a result of its nuclear and missile tests, according to a recent report by Arirang News, an English-language network based in Seoul.
Reports of defections
The order to return home came amid reports of officials from North Korea’s ruling Worker’s Party and government seeking to defect due to a series of purges and executions ordered by regime leader Kim Jong Un as part of his so-called “reign of terror.”
A recent South Korean media report cited a high-ranking Worker’s Party official as saying that in late April last year, then Chief of General Political Bureau Choi Ryong Hae had been in the custody of North Korean authorities for about a month and was nearly executed.
Another report from South Korea said that 10 high-ranking North Korean officials staying abroad defected last week, with some having already arrived in the South—including Lieutenant General Park Seung Won, who attended a meeting of defense ministers in 2000 as second-in-command and had recently sought asylum through Russia.
Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group of Virginia-based CNA Analysis and Solutions, told RFA that if the reports were accurate, “they could reflect … that leaders within North Korea are becoming increasingly anxious about politics around Kim Jong Un.”
Officials could be concerned about “whether they’re looking at another significant purge or not, and potentially could be voting with their feet,” he said, though he added that he did not see the defections as “being particularly destabilizing within the regime.”
Cha Du-hyon, a visiting scholar with the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification, told RFA that only a mass defection of high-ranking officials currently in power could be seen as a factor in destabilizing the regime, rather than one by officials with ties to a fading power base.
“If party leader Choi Ryong Hae or North Korean Prime Mister Park Bong Ju, or their relatives, defect to South Korea, it is open to interpretation that the regime is facing a severe crisis,” he said.
“But if officials ousted from power defect to the South in the process of a leadership change or the eradication of the last vestiges of (Kim’s uncle) Jang Song Thaek, it can’t be seen as an indicator of regime instability in North Korea.”
Jang Song Thaek, who was the de facto number-two leader, was executed in December 2013 after being accused of plotting to overthrow the hard-line communist regime, and Kim is working to remove all those linked to his uncle, who was considered instrumental in his rise to power.
Cha noted that individual defections of high-ranking officials in the past had not led to destabilization, including one by late former Worker’s Party leader Hwang Jang Yop, who defected to South Korea in 1997 during a large-scale famine in the North.
However, experts acknowledged a “tense atmosphere” in North Korea, particularly in the wake of Jang’s death and the April public execution of defense minister Hyon Yong Chol, who was reportedly shot at close range by an anti-aircraft gun in front of hundreds of officials for committing “acts of disloyalty” to Kim Jong Un, including falling asleep during a meeting attended by Kim.
According to South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS), Kim has executed around 70 senior officials as part of a bid to secure his leadership since taking power following the death of his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il from a heart attack in December 2011—including 15 this year alone.
The NIS has suggested that high-ranking officials in North Korea publicly demonstrate obedience to the Kim regime in the interest of self-preservation, but harbor doubts about his leadership behind closed doors.
Reported by Songwu Park and Young Jung for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Yunju Kim. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.