THE official who managed the funds for the ousted uncle of North Korea’s Communist dictator, Kim Jong-un, is said to have sought asylum in South Korea.
The unnamed aide is being kept in a secret location in China, cable news network YTN and Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper said.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) has refused to confirm the claim.
YTN said the man managed funds for Jang Song-thaek, whose marriage to Mr Kim’s aunt and proximity to the young leader made him one of the most powerful men in the North.
Mr Jang was relieved of his posts last month, according to the NIS, and the television network said his sacking could have followed the aide’s defection.
YTN said the aide also had knowledge of funds belonging to Mr Kim and his father, former leader Kim Jong-il. If true, the defection would be the first time in 15 years a high-ranking regime official has switched sides.
Impoverished but nuclear-capable North Korea and the rich, democratic South are still technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
A spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry, Kim Eui-do, and officials at the foreign ministry said the defection report could not be confirmed.
Jung Cheong-rae, a member of the South Korean parliament’s intelligence committee, told reporters the NIS had said it did not know about the defection, but that two of Mr Jang’s relatives serving in embassies overseas had been recalled.
“It is true that Jang’s brother-in-law and nephew have been called back to North Korea,” Mr Jung cited the NIS as saying.
Mr Jang himself is alive and appears to be safe, South Korean officials have said. He has survived previous purges and official displeasure, thanks largely to his sometimes tempestuous marriage to Kim Kyong-hui, daughter of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung.
North Korea’s ruling Kim family is deeply venerated and feared. It is ruthless about protecting its security and privacy and little is known about the inner workings of the regime.
The aide requested asylum about two months ago, YTN said. In Beijing, there were no signs of any additional security around the South Korean embassy.
Asked about the South Korean media reports, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said: “We have noted the reports, but do not understand the situation.”
South Korea’s intelligence service has also said two of Mr Jang’s close associates were executed last month for corruption.
These reports have not been confirmed either.
YTN said Mr Jang’s aide fled to China some time in late September or early October and that Mr Jang could have been sacked because of this.
“A source familiar with the matter said the aide immediately requested asylum from the South Korean government and South Korean officials are currently protecting him at a secret place in China,” it said.
China, North Korea’s only major ally, usually seeks to prevent defections within its territory. YTN said the aide tried to escape to Laos, a route favoured by other defectors, but Chinese authorities prevented him from leaving. American officials have also sought custody of the aide, the television station said.
About 25,000 North Koreans have defected to the South but few are of high rank.
The major defectors include Hwang Jang-yop, a Worker’s Party ideologue who was the architect of the Juche (self-reliance) ideology of North Korea, who sought asylum in the South in 1997. Kim Jong-un’s aunt, his mother’s sister, fled to the US in 1998, media reports have said.
In 2002, a North Korean nuclear scientist named Kyong Won Ha escaped the country, although few details are known.