A close aide to North Korea's supreme leader Kim Jong-il has defected to the US fearing he would be punished for a failed drug trafficking attempt, a news report said yesterday.
Kil Jae-gyong, vice director of Kim Jong-il's secretariat, had sought asylum in the US with two of his assistants, Yonhap News Agency said, citing an unidentified diplomatic source in South Korea's capital Seoul.
"Vice director Kil and the two others have recently asked the US to allow them political asylum and they are now staying in a safe place," the source was quoted as saying.
Kil and his aides were directly involved in a drug trafficking case in Australia, according to Yonhap.
A North Korean cargo ship and its 26 crew have been held in Australia since April on charges stemming from an alleged narcotics deal involving 50kg of pure heroin.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has said an official of the North Korean regime had been aboard the state-owned ship accused of bringing the heroin, worth US$50 million, to Australia.
It was not immediately clear whether this official was Kil.
In 1976 Kil was implicated in a drug deal and expelled from Sweden where he was serving as North Korea's ambassador to Stockholm.
In 1998 he was caught trying to use US$30,000 in counterfeit notes in Vladivostok and was kicked out again.
The North Korean freighter, Pong Su, was boarded and seized by Australian special forces troops on April 20 after a chase that began five days earlier when it allegedly unloaded the heroin off southeastern Australia.
The North's foreign ministry spokesman has said the ship was a "civilian trading ship" and its owners were unaware of the alleged drug trafficking case.
Kil is the highest-ranking North Korean official to defect from the impoverished Stalinist state since Hwang Jang-yop, a former secretary of the Workers Party of Korea who defected to South Korea in 1997.
Kil has been involved mainly in raising secret funds for the reclusive North Korean leader and he is well acquainted with Kim and his families' private life, according to Hwang.
Kil's defection came as the US government is reportedly seeking to step up its crackdown on the North's drug trafficking and missile exports.
"An increasing number of high-level North Koreans are defecting these days," the source said, pointing to a high-level general of the North Korean navy and a nuclear scientist among a group of North Korean defectors.
A news report from Sydney last month said that up to 20 nuclear scientists and military officers have defected to the west with help provided by the Pacific island state of Nauru.
One of the most notable figures submitting to debriefings by western intelligence officials at the moment included Kyong Won-ha, the top expert of North Korea's nuclear program.