Defections by ordinary North Ko-reans fleeing hunger have been common in recent years, but generals and high ranking officials are also escaping the Stalinist regime's grip, analysts and aid groups say.
"Not only generals are defecting to China, but many officials, such as cadres below the ministry level," said Zhao Huji, one of China's leading North Korean experts and a researcher at the elite Communist Party School.
Unlike most refugees crossing into China, the high-level defectors and their families did not lack basic necessities. Rather, they were disconcerted with Kim Jong-Il's rule, Zhao said.
"Some fear arrests. Many don't agree with what the regime is doing and are unable to accept its method of rule. They can't change the situation, so they run," he said.
With money and strong connections in China through previous visits on official business, the defectors, especially military officials, have ample opportunities to defect when on trade missions.
The Chinese government had no comment on the latest revelations.
Aid workers said they had met ranking officials, including those in the State Security Agency, who expressed a desire to defect.
"One case I came across was someone in the rank of general. He feared once the regime collapsed, he would be stoned to death by the average people," said Kim Sang-hun, a Seoul-based activist.
"He hadn't defected at the time. He was in China for fact-finding purposes, to find ways to protect his personal safety and that of his family," Kim said.
Experts said they found probable a recent report in the International Herald Tribune quoting a South Korean magazine editor saying 130 generals had defected to China and a few had been integrated into the Chinese military.
"It wouldn't be surprising if that were the case. North Korean officials, civilians or military, have been badly demoralized over the years," Kim said .
These are people who have benefited from proximity to Kim Jong-il, but their privileges also exposed them more than others to the outside world, experts said.
"They realize North Korea is not the paradise on earth as it's broadcasted to be in North Korea," Kim Sang-hun said.
Most of the defectors want to stay in China while others prefer to go to the US.
"There are many in China's inland areas such as Shanxi Province, as well as Shandong Province," Zhao said, but declined to say what they were doing.
Failing to reach the US, some reluctantly go to South Korea.
"South Korea is not as safe as the United States because there are so many North Korean agents there. They are afraid of being assassinated," said Hiroshi Kato, secretary general of the Tokyo-based Life Funds for North Korean Refugees.
In recent weeks, speculation has been rife about whether Kim's power was softening, following reports that his portraits had been taken down in some government buildings. High-level defections have sparked further questions on whether the Kim family's 60-year control was weakening.
Earlier this year, reports said Oh Se-wook, the son of the North's top military official in charge of secret missions overseas, had defected by sailing to the Sea of Japan, later making his way to the US.
Despite the defections and missing pictures, analysts argued Kim's power was far from waning.
"He is more powerful than Mao Zedong (