This month the second-highest official in North Korea’s London embassy defected, to great fanfare.
Yang Moojin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, says in the past, South Korea’s government has sometimes chosen not to announce even “higher-profile” defections if they came at a moment when South Korea was trying to avoid friction with the North.
But this year, relations are rockier and South Korea is trying to put pressure on the North for its rocket and nuclear tests. It also happens that South Korea has been emphasizing North Korean defections.
Back in April, South Korea shared news of the mass defection of more than a dozen North Korean restaurant workers from their post in China. The timing played into the narrative as a new round of sanctions, described by the U.S. as the “toughest in decades,” had just gone into effect.
Then came the announcement that a colonel from North Korea’s spy agency had defected in the fall of 2015. But there was no explanation as to why South Korea hadn’t announced the defection when it happened, which was months earlier. Instead, the South Korean announcement of the colonel’s defection came just days before a legislative election in which President Park Geun-hye’s ruling party faced possible losses.
And scattered throughout the South Korean news this year have been reports with unnamed government officials telling the media that “key” North Koreans abroad have disappeared and absconded with money.
Both things can be true at the same time: North Korean defections are taking place with some regularity, and the South is using the defections to promote their political aims.