Europe-based North Korean defects with several million dollars of slush fund cash

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 August, 2016, 6:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 19 August, 2016, 10:12pm

A European-based North Korean official, involved in managing a foreign currency slush fund for the country’s leadership, has fled his post with a sizeable sum of money, South Korean media reports said on Friday.

The reports follow the defection to South Korea this week of the North Korean deputy ambassador to Britain – one of the highest ranking diplomats to flee the isolated state.

Both the Yonhap news agency and the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper cited unidentified informed sources as saying the official was in “protective custody” in an unidentified European country.

It was not immediately clear if he had defected or was seeking a country to take him in.

The Unification Ministry in Seoul declined to comment.

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The two reports carried contradictory details, with Yonhap saying the official had initially “disappeared” late last year with several million dollars, while the Dong-A Ilbo suggested he had fled his post in June with as much as US$400 million.

Both said he was a senior official in Office 39 – a secretive organisation within North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party that maintains a hard currency slush fund for the top leadership.

US intelligence says Office 39 oversees a network of illegal money-making operations, including drugs smuggling and counterfeit currency.

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Both media reports said the man had been living in Europe for two decades, but gave no specific details on the official post, or posts, he had occupied during that time.

Yonhap said he had initially sought asylum in the United States, but was turned down, while the Dong-A Ilbo said his disappearance had triggered an extensive manhunt by North Korean agents.

South Korea has scored a number of propaganda coups recently with some high-profile defections, including the deputy ambassador and, in April, a dozen waitresses who had been working in a North Korean restaurant in China.