By William Tucker
Chief Correspondent for In Homeland Security
South Korean media is reporting that a high-level official of the North Korean government defected to the South earlier in the year. There isn’t much known about the identity of this individual at this time, nor has the government in Seoul confirmed the defection, but, if true, the defection could give regional governments an inside view into the functioning of the Kim regime in Pyongyang. According to the available reports, the individual held a high rank in the North Korean government on par with cabinet level duties.
Of further value is the claim that the official worked in the State Security Department which is responsible for running the secret police and nearly all of the counterintelligence functions of the North Korean government. Keep in mind that counterintelligence is both a defensive and offensive discipline. In essence this defector would have insight into people suspected of spying for foreign governments inside North Korea and offensive missions designed to exploit foreign clandestine activities directed against Pyongyang that have been uncovered by the SSA. Again, if this report is accurate then this defector could be a windfall of information to the South Koreans and their allies. Furthermore, this defection could be used as a bellwether for the viability of the Kim government. It’s been claimed that 46 officials – mostly serving overseas – have defected in the last three years, but having someone inside the Kim cabinet defect is far more valuable.
The counterintelligence officers on the receiving end of the defection have their work cut out for them. First, it’s important to note that most defectors betray their nation for personal reasons. This means that the defector is coming with some sort of baggage that can make debriefing difficult. As Wilhelm Marbes described in his article “Psychology of Treason,” some defectors are forced to make the decision to defect because the “auditor is coming on Monday.” This individual is claimed to hold a high rank in Kim’s cabinet and with the spate of purges – many carried out by the SSA that this defector allegedly represents – that followed in the wake of Kim’s ascendency to power it’s possible the official was concerned enough for his personal safety that he fled to the South Korean’s at the first available opportunity. What put his person in jeopardy in the first place will be something the debriefing officers will try to parse because it can influence the valuable information the defector claims to possess. For a high ranking official, however, this influence can extend to punishing those in his previous regime who the defector perceives to have wronged him by coloring certain information. Skilled debriefing officers will notice these attempts of manipulating information for personal game, but it is a very real risk faced in many defector debriefings. Mind you that this information is still valuable, but how it is used and acted upon will require careful analysis.
There is also the risk that this defector arrived in South Korea without any intention to defect at all, but is running a rather elaborate deception operation designed to relay false information. These operations are based upon the knowledge that your adversary is desperate for fresh, actionable intelligence and the arrival of such a well-placed defector may be too much to pass up. Naturally, this has occurred in the course of the Korean division though that may not be the case here. It’s been reported that the defector arrived in Seoul earlier in the year and CI debriefings can be measured in months depending on the value of the defector. That this is only now leaking to the press seems to indicate that North Korea knows, quite obviously by now, that it has lost someone of importance and has followed through with an investigation and damage assessment and has implemented mitigating factors to limit future damage from this defections. For its part, South Korea likely too pains to fully debrief this defector to ensure no malice is intended and moved quite rapidly on a number of items that would have been disclosed early on in the debriefing period, thus allowing them to establish the veracity of the information provided by this defector. After a period of acclimatization, the defector will likely continue to work with South Korean intelligence in an analytical capacity that can be compartmentalized, but useful in understanding the Kim regime and its intentions.
As to the earlier remark that the defection may serve as a bellwether to the viability of the Kim regime, it will take time and careful observation to determine if anything profound has changed as a result of the defection. Defections of high ranking officials may indicate that the regime is failing, as do the myriad purges that have occurred over the past few years, and as such some ranking officials with the means of leaving the country will do so as opposed to going down with a sinking ship. It’s also worth mentioning that the sinking of the regime may not occur immediately, but if other officials attempt to leave following on the heels of their former comrade, then one can reasonably assume that something is off with the regime’s stability. That doesn’t seem to be the case at this point in time.
Pyongyang has been rather cooperative lately as evidenced by the reversal of the threat to cancel the family reunion of those separated by at 38th parallel from the Korean War. For now the Kim regime seems stable enough and we still don’t have further information on the defection, but the willingness to leave such a basket case of a government that can be vindictive is instructive and worthy of further observation.