North Korea is facing what could be its most serious defection in years after a man who managed funds for the ousted uncle of leader Kim Jong Un fled the isolated country, South Korean media said on Friday.
The aide has sought asylum in South Korea and is currently being protected by South Korean officials in a secret location in China, cable news network YTN said, citing a source familiar with the matter.
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.
However, Jang was relieved of his posts last month, according to South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS), and YTN said the aide’s defection could explain the sacking.
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 be the first instance in years of a significant insider from the Pyongyang regime switching sides.
Impoverished North Korea and the rich, democratic South are still technically at war after their 1950-53 civil war ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
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.
North Korea's ruling Kim family is deeply venerated and feared. It is ruthless about protecting its security and privacy and little is known about the inner workings of the regime.
The aide requested asylum about two months ago and is currently in China, YTN reported. In Beijing, there were no signs of any additional security around the South Korean embassy.
Asked about the South Korean media reports, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei indicated that his country has “noted the report, but do not understand the situation.”
South Korea's intelligence service has also said two of Jang's close associates were executed last month for corruption. These reports have not been confirmed either.
YTN claimed Jang's aide fled to China some time in late September or early October.
“A source familiar with the matter said the aide immediately requested asylum from the South Korean government and South Korean officials are currently protecting him at a secret place in China,” the report said.
China, Pyongyang's only major ally, usually resists allowing defectors from North Korea to seek asylum elsewhere.
YTN said the aide tried to escape to Laos, a route favored by other defectors, but Chinese authorities prevented him from leaving.
U.S. officials have also sought custody of the aide, the television station said.
About 25,000 North Koreans have defected to the South but few of them were highly placed in Pyongyang.
Major defectors in the past have included Hwang Jang Yop, a high-level Worker's Party ideologue who was the architect of the Juche (self-reliance) ideology of North Korea, who sought asylum in the South in 1997.
Kim Jong Un's aunt, his mother's sister, fled to the United States in 1998.
In 2002, a North Korean nuclear scientist named Kyong Won Ha escaped the country, although few details are known.