TOKYO — Is Kim Jong Un’s regime crumbling? It’s a perennial question that gets asked every time there’s a report of another defection from North Korea’s upper ranks.
The latest reports, published this week in the South Korean press, suggest that two senior officials and their families have defected from North Korea’s huge embassy in Beijing. The daily newspaper JoongAng Ilbo reported that one was a Health Ministry representative who was responsible for procuring medical supplies for Kim.
This follows the escape of Thae Yong Ho, North Korea’s deputy ambassador to Britain, to South Korea with his family in August, as well as reports of North Korean money men fleeing their posts in Russia and Southeast Asia, taking bags of cash and valuable information with them to Seoul.
This year also saw the highly publicized mass defection of 13 North Korean restaurant workers employed in China and the announcement — months after the event — that a colonel from North Korea’s spy agency had made his way to the South.
For advocates of change in North Korea, it is all too tempting to see these defections as evidence of a crumbling of the political order, brought about — the theory goes — by unbearably painful direct and multilateral sanctions.
“We see that defections by North Korean elite are clear signs of cracks in the North Korean regime,” an official from South Korea’s Unification Ministry, responsible for relations with the North, told reporters Thursday in Seoul.
“But it remains to be seen if it could work as a trigger for the regime’s collapse,” the unidentified official said, according to a report from the South’s Yonhap News Agency.
This follows an exhortation from South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who has taken an increasingly strident approach to the North following this year’s nuclear tests, encouraging North Koreans to defect.
“We are well aware of the gruesome realities you face,” Park said Saturday in a message to North Koreans on South Korea’s Armed Forces Day. “We will keep the road open for you to find hope and live a new life. Please come to the bosom of freedom in the South whenever you want.”
North Korea responded by calling Park, in the Rodong Sinmun state newspaper, “a barefaced and impudent b----.”
Park’s address came a day after a rare defection by a North Korean soldier across the 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone that divides the peninsula.
The South Korean government, once loath to confirm such events, has this year been boasting about high-level defections from the North as it ramps up its own propaganda campaign against Pyongyang. The Unification Ministry official said the number of defections by high-ranking officials in the North Korean regime has risen over the past year compared with the 12 months before, but he did not disclose figures.
Analysts cautioned against reading too much into the latest reports, given that the North Korean regime has remained intact through three generations of leaders named Kim.
“The conventional wisdom says not to overestimate these defections, that the regime is much stronger than we think,” said Euan Graham, a former British diplomat in Pyongyang who now works at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.
In fact, more high-level defections should be expected after Thae’s dramatic departure from London, he said. “It would be strange if there was not a clampdown on diplomats at foreign embassies and an order to send their families home to Pyongyang,” Graham said.
North Koreans working abroad used to have to leave one family member, usually a child, in the country as a kind of insurance against defecting. But in recent years, these rules seem to have been relaxed, with an increasing number of trusted officials allowed to take their whole nuclear families overseas with them.
Thae’s defection, reportedly with his wife and two grown sons, could have led Pyongyang to recall families, Graham said. Some, perhaps those concerned about being split up or families with children who don’t want to go back to the relative isolation of North Korea, might defect instead.
Christopher Green, who analyzes North Korea at Leiden University in the Netherlands, also warned against overblowing the latest report.
“If the entire North Korean diplomatic corps and all the other North Koreans who work abroad all defected simultaneously, that would in principle have a deleterious effect on the regime,” Green said. “But people outside the country are generally not viewed as a threat, given what we know about dictators and their tendency to ship people overseas.”
Even the reported defections from Office 39, the main moneymaking organization for the Kim leadership, would not have much impact on the regime, he said. “Even for a poor country like North Korea, losing $10 million isn’t going to make a significant dent,” Green said, referring to reports of North Korean businessmen defecting with bags of cash.