Reuters – BEIJING – Several North Korean military defectors have fled their country and sought or been granted asylum in the West or in South Korea, independent sources said on Wednesday.
Three sources told Reuters the defectors fled through China and traveled by plane, train or road on false identification papers to Southeast Asia in recent months.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it had no knowledge of the defections, which could prove embarrassing for Beijing as it tries to facilitate negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang to end a crisis over the isolated state’s nuclear program.
The South and North Korean embassies in Beijing had no comment on the revelations, which come at a sensitive time.
President Bush and South Korean leader Roh Moo-hyun will meet on Wednesday to try to find a solution to the nuclear crisis that has boiled since October.
One of the defectors was army officer Paek Jong-su, 45, who said in a written interview from his hideout in Cambodia that there had been other defectors before him.
Reuters obtained a photocopy of Paek’s identity papers, which did not give a rank. Paek answered few questions on his military role, but the sources said his papers appeared genuine.
Asked why he had defected, Paek said: “To be free from the life there. I knew we were not told the truth about the outside.
“We always have to be careful of what we do or say. Never offend our leaders’ honor,” Paek said, adding that he learned about the outside world from U.S. radio broadcasts.
One of the defectors identified himself as a submarine commander, the sources said.
Analysts said the revelations would lead to a crackdown by China, one of Pyongyang’s few friends, and make it more difficult for others to flee.
“It puts China in a difficult position. Embarrassed, the Chinese will be forced to clamp down, making it even more difficult for North Koreans to leave,” said a Western diplomat.
Paek said collapse of the North Korean regime was “not inevitable, only possible.”
He said leader Kim Jong-il was in control and had the support of a group of generals, but morale in the one million-strong armed forces was low.
“Kim Jong-il is 100 percent suspicious of the United States,” said communist party member Paek, who received six medals.
Asked if North Korea had nuclear weapons, he said: “There has been a lot of research, but discussion is not allowed.”
“I think there has been enough research and there should be bombs now.”
Paek, who fled from Yanji in northeast China to Cambodia in April and hopes to go to South Korea said he would have been beaten to death if he had been caught and repatriated.
The defectors # the first known military officers since a wave of North Koreans began seeking refuge in foreign missions in China last year # were smuggled out with the help of South Korean refugee groups, the sources said.
Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor who helped plan some of the dashes into Western missions, has said he wanted to bring down the Pyongyang government by promoting a refugee exodus, in much the same way as an exodus brought down East Germany.
Tens of thousands of North Koreans have been hiding in northeast China bordering their country, which has been mired in poverty and famine after years of drought, floods and fierce winters. Beijing refuses to recognize them as refugees.
The highest-ranked known defector from North Korea is Hwang Jang-yop, who sought asylum at the South Korean embassy in Beijing in 1997 and went to Seoul. Hwang, a prominent ideologue, sat on the central committee of the ruling Workers’ Party.