This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korean authorities arrested seven out of a group of 15 government officials from Pyongyang who were allegedly attempting to defect by crossing the border into China, RFA has learned.
Local sources told RFA’s Korean Service that North Korea security agents flew to Samjiyon Airport in an emergency operation as the 15 had split into smaller groups to evade capture.
The seven were arrested in a village near the border, while it is believed that the other eight were able to escape. Members of the group may have been carrying secret information in the form of official government documents.
“On January 2nd, the State Security Department launched an emergency operation to arrest a group of 15 people who fled Pyongyang and were heading to the border,” an official from Ryanggang province told RFA on Jan. 25.
“Agents were dispatched from Pyongyang to Samjiyon,” the source said.
“The fact that they used a plane to prevent them from defecting proves that the would-be defectors are not ordinary people,” said the source.
The source said that the group of 15 had left Pyongyang during the New Year holiday.
“[They] arrived in Pakcheol-li village, situated on the border with China in Kimhyongjik County, Ryanggang Province, on January 2nd” said the source.
“Among them were a typist from the Central Party who was handling key documents for the state, so it is extremely likely he or she had some kind of secret document,” the source added.
“Most of them are senior officials. They are believed to have lived in the Ryomyong Street and Mirae Scientists Street area in the central area of Pyongyang,” the source said, referring to a newly developed area of the capital with expensive high-rise apartments.
The source said that the agents were not able to arrest the entire group of 15.
“Seven of them were arrested just before crossing the border.” the source said, adding, “State Security used a plane to track them down, but eight of them had already crossed.”
“It was found that some of the defector officials in the group worked on the state’s major telecommunications systems,” the source said.
Another source, a law enforcement official in Ryanggan told RFA on the 26th that the operation “was belatedly reported.”
“The State Security Department and the Provincial Security Department launched a desperate arrest operation to prevent them from defecting,” said the second source.
The second source said that the use of an airplane in the sting was not normal.
“I’ve been working for the judicial authorities all my life, but I’ve never heard of flying an airplane to catch North Korean defectors,” the second source said.
“The group of 15 defectors apparently moved separately in 3 to 4 groups. The security agents were desperately trying to catch them, but since [the defectors] moved in separate groups, only seven were arrested and eight others were able to cross the border,” said the second source.
“Considering that the security authorities pulled out all the stops, even using an airplane, one can imagine how embarrassed they must have been that 15 senior officials from Pyongyang were trying to defect,” said the second source.
Several high-profile North Koreans have defected from the repressive country in recent years.
RFA reported in Jan. 2019 that North Korea’s ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil, went into hiding in a possible defection. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service said in August that he had left Italy and is under protection “somewhere,” without clearly saying who was protecting him.
In 2016, Thae Yong Ho, North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, defected to South Korea.