Senior North Korean military official defects, South Korea says

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Tensions rise in the DMZ

A senior intelligence officer with the North Korean military has defected to South Korea, officials in Seoul said on Monday.

The defector was a senior colonel with the North Korean Reconnaissance General Bureau, which is in charge of espionage operations against South Korea, according to South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun and Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee.

Speaking in separate press conferences Monday, the ministry spokesmen confirmed that reports on the defection by South Korea’s semi-official Yonhap News Agency were accurate, but said they could give no further details.

Yonhap reported that the senior colonel was the highest level North Korean military official known to have defected, although CNN was not able to independently confirm this.

North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau is a powerful body, responsible for handling clandestine operations, including espionage against foreign countries and cyber-warfare operations.

Fleeing brutality

Tens of thousands of North Koreans have fled poverty and repression in the isolated North in recent decades, but the defections of senior officials are less common.

Last year, a high-level defector told CNN that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was taking an increasingly brutal approach to the country’s elite, executing them when they fell out of favor.

The hardline on aides and officials was eroding his fragile support base, the defector said, in comments that CNN was unable to independently confirm due to the challenges of verifying information inside North Korea, one of the most closed and repressive countries on Earth.

Last week, 13 North Korean nationals who had been working at a Pyongyang-owned restaurant in an unnamed Asian nation defected to South Korea, officials in Seoul announced.

Few North Koreans are ever permitted to leave the country, but a small number work abroad in a state-owned restaurant chain and other government-run businesses.

The restaurant workers, 12 women and a man, said they had defected after “feeling pressure from North Korean authorities” to send foreign currency back to their homeland, South Korean officials said.

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