The ouster of North Korea's eminence grise Jang Song-taek could lead to a wave of defections from his cronies and other senior officials who had thrown in their lot with him and now see their position under threat.
Jang had been intermittently at the center of power since he married former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's sister Kim Kyong-hui in 1972, amassing a following of some 20,000 loyal officials.
One senior official who handled Jang and leader Kim Jong-un's private coffers is already rumored to have fled to China.
A senior government source here on Tuesday said the rumors are "not groundless" but declined to go into details. The source added Jang's ouster "could lead to defections by his confidants."
Sources in China are certainly aware of the rumors. They say South Korea, the U.S. and China have been racing to recruit the official in question.
Another confidant of Jang's is Ri Su-yong, a former ambassador to Switzerland and head of the Workers Party investment committee. Ri worked mainly in Europe from the 1980s. He served as the consul general to Geneva, permanent representative to the UN Secretariat in Geneva, and ambassador to the Netherlands.
Ri handled North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's expenses while he was at boarding school in Switzerland and is believed to have managed the Kim dynasty's secret funds in Swiss banks.
After returning to North Korea in 2010, Ri aided Jang's efforts to attract foreign capital, a position that enabled him to become deeply involved in trade with China.
Diplomatic sources in Beijing say Ri's whereabouts are now unclear. He may have fled to China, but another source said he has already been arrested in North Korea. Ri Su-yong "was the next target" after Jang's closest confidants Ri Yong-ha and Jang Su-gil were executed in public, the source added.
There are also rumors that another North Korean official based in China who handled Jang's funds has fled to South Korea. One source said the mid-ranking official "mainly handled cross-border trade in minerals and seafood" and recently asked to come to Seoul, and South Korea has him "in protective care."
Then there is talk that a North Korean general defected with information about the North's nuclear weapons program.
The government here officially professes ignorance. Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae appeared before the National Assembly's Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee Tuesday and denied any knowledge of such high-level defections, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tae-young denied there have been requests from North Korean officials to defect.
◆ Mixed Forecasts
But experts believe that many of Jang's cronies who handled North Korean business abroad will choose to defect rather than return to Pyongyang. During a similar purge in 1956, hundreds of North Korean officials based in China and the former Soviet Union chose to defect rather than face an uncertain future back home.
Cho Bong-hyun of the IBK Economic Research Institute said party and military officials sent abroad to manage the North’s money-making business number in their hundreds in China alone, and "most of them probably don’t want to return."
However, Nam Sung-wook at Korea University said, "We may see one or two defections, but most of them have family back in North Korea so there is only a small chance of mass defections."