North Korea

Teenage defector’s disappearance set off alarm bells among North Korean student delegation to Hong Kong math contest

Top South Korean diplomat keeps silent on status of defector

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 July, 2016, 11:14am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 July, 2016, 2:29pm

A North Korean student thought to have sought asylum at the South Korean consulate in Hong Kong was staying at a hostel in the city’s storied Chungking Mansions before he went missing, it has emerged.

A diplomatic source, who requested anonymity, said the teenager arrived in the city at the beginning of this month as part of an eight-strong team taking part in a maths competition and checked into a fifth-floor guest house in the Tsim Sha Tsui tower block, which has struggled to shake off its reputation for seediness, drug sales and prostitution.

Unlike most teams from around the world contesting the 57th International Mathematical Olympiad at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the Pyongyang delegation did not stay at digs on campus.

All six members of the North Korean team – and the two adults accompanying them – attended the competition’s closing dinner at the Clearwater Bay university on July 15.

At some point after that, according to the source, one of the students vanished and later sought refuge at Seoul’s diplomatic mission in Admiralty.

News of the apparent defection – thought to be the first in Hong Kong since China regained sovereignty over the city in 1997 – was leaked on Wednesday.

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The team, which came sixth out of 109 countries in the competition, left the city for Pyongyang via the mainland on July 19 minus one student.

Three team members – Myonghyok Ri, Kum Song Jon and Jong Yol Ri – had previously travelled overseas to compete in the annual tournament, while Il Jin Kim, Un Song Choe and Yu Song Han were first-timers.

South Korea’s consul general in Hong Kong, Kim Kwang-dong, refused on Thursday to comment on the disappearance. On Wednesday, security around the his country’s consulate in the Far East Finance Centre had been visibly tightened.

Attempts, both in person and by telephone, to contact diplomats at North Korea’s mission in the nearby China Resources Building were met with silence.

Steve Chung Lok-wai, an expert in Korean affairs at the Chinese University said: “This issue is related to foreign affairs and not one the Hong Kong government can handle.”

The diplomatic source said North Korean delegations travelling overseas were kept on a tight leash and rarely received a daily cash allowance.

Tsim Sha Tsui is home to a number of Korean restaurants and shops, and has been dubbed Hong Kong’s “Little Korea”. It is not known if this was a factor in the team’s choice of location.

The last reported instance of North Koreans escaping to Hong Kong was in 1996.

Then, a family of 16 and another defector fled to the city to seek help.

Additional reporting by Clifford Lo