SEOUL -- A high-ranking North Korean military officer said to be a close confidant of the recently executed uncle of ruler Kim Jong Un is in South Korean custody in China, South Korean media reported Thursday.
Several South Korean media outlets, citing anonymous intelligence officials, said the unnamed military officer was being questioned in a South Korean diplomatic office in Beijing.
According to 24-hour news channel YTN, the former aide to Jang Song Taek anticipated the purge of his boss and sought to defect at the end of September.
Though South Korea’s Foreign Ministry has denied the reports, analysts speculated that the South Korean government may be avoiding public comment on the situation to protect the would-be defector and secretly bring him to South Korea while minimizing diplomatic friction for China, North Korea’s neighbor and ally.
Lee Jung-hyun, a spokesperson for Seoul’s presidential Blue House, told reporters, "When I asked Chief of National Security Kim Jang-soo about the matter, he said he 'knows nothing about it.'" Pressed further about whether South Korea was handling any asylum seekers, Lee replied, "Whether the matter is small or big, we are on alert on anything related to security."
Jang, 67, was Kim's uncle by marriage and widely regarded as the second-most-senior figure in the North Korean leadership. But North Korea's official KCNA news agency reported last week that Jang was executed after being found guilty of treason and other crimes, calling him "despicable human scum."
KCNA’s nearly 3,000-word report on the execution of Jang made it clear that Kim’s regime does not intend to allow those close to Jang to avoid punishment.
Jang’s "flatterers and followers in his department and organs under it praised him as 'No. 1 comrade.' They went the lengths of denying even the party’s instructions to please him at any cost," the KCNA statement said. "The revolutionary army will never pardon all those who disobey the order of the Supreme Commander and there will be no place for them to be buried even after their death."
The Jang confidant was reportedly in charge of managing slush funds for Kim Jong Un and his late father, North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011.
Although many analysts predict further fallout from the Jang purge, the incident seems to be having no effect on one upcoming international exchange with the Stalinist regime: ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman’s third trip this year to the isolated nation.
Rodman, 52, who has called Kim Jong Un a “friend for life,” left Beijing for Pyongyang on Thursday. The basketball player, who visited North Korea in March and in September this year, is reportedly going to help train the country’s national team during his five-day trip.
On Jan. 8, Kim’s birthday, Rodman is scheduled to attend the “Paddy Power Dennis Rodman Basketball Invitational” in Pyongyang. Publicity materials for the event indicate that Rodman plans to bring “NBA stars” to play against the North Koreans, though no names of any participating players have been announced.
Rodman told reporters at Beijing’s airport that he hopes to have "a good conversation" with Kim but said politics "had nothing to do with [him]."
"I'm just going over there to do a basketball game and have some fun," he told Reuters news agency.
Choi is a special correspondent.