REPORTING FROM SEOUL -– North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's death has already had an unintended effect for the now-reeling regime: Members of the elite class may be starting to defect, and more are expected to follow, South Korean media reported Saturday.
"Many ranking North Korean officials in China are refusing to return after being summoned to North Korea," said Do Hee-yun, secretary-general of a group that calls itself the Citizens' Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees.
Less than a week after Kim died of a heart attack in Pyongyang on Dec. 17, South Korean lawmakers summoned security-related ministers to the national parliament to discuss inter-Korean relations.
Present at the hearing before the parliamentary Foreign Affairs, Trade and Unification Committee were South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin, Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Kim Sung-hwan and Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik, as well as various experts.
It may not be only the wealthy elite who are reportedly abandoning the North Korean regime; Pyongyang began to summon back senior officials at diplomatic missions in China last weekend, prior to the news Monday of Kim's death, the Korea Times reported.
Do claimed that many of those officials fear a possible political purge as the regime undergoes a leadership transition to Kim's youngest son, Kim Jong Un, and are postponing their trips to Pyongyang with excuses, such as having to collect payments from trade agents, the newspaper reported.
He added that high-profile government figures abroad may seek ways to defect to Seoul as Pyongyang appears reluctant to take strong action against them during the mourning period.
Kang Sung-kyu, a professor of North Korea studies at Korea University, predicted that many of the North's elite will escape to the South if a power struggle erupts in their impoverished nation.
The late dictator's brother-in-law is believed to be helping smooth the youngest Kim's rise to power within military circles.
"It remains to be seen whether Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, will help Jong Un take firm control of North Korea or remove his nephew with the help of other top military figures," Kang said.
He added that many North Koreans now distrust the regime because of widespread famine and hardship that began soon after Kim Jong Il took power following the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994.
"North Korean defectors say in order to prove yourself to be a good friend, you have to curse Kim Jong Il in North Korea, which was something unthinkable when the North's founder, Kim Il Sung, ruled the country," Kang told the committee.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at Seoul's Sejong Institute, also predicted that many of North Korea's elite or dissidents may opt to leave the country for fear of a purge in the near future. He said conflicts among top military officials might bring political persecution to many who had enjoyed a good life under the old regime, or even those who had fought against Kim's rule.
But he said a mass defection is unlikely, as Pyongyang has tightened its border control and toughened punishments for those attempting to flee.
"Now you have to pay five to 10 times more to bribe North Korean soldiers to cross into China and the odds of successfully leaving are much lower due to tighter border controls." he said.
Cheong told lawmakers that if too many dissidents desert, the regime might lose a chance to bring change to the reclusive nation.
"Many of those considering seeking refuge elsewhere are the ones who would fight for a better North Korea," he said.
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: North Koreans pay respects to Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang. Credit: Korean Central News Agency