Seoul, South Korea (CNN)A North Korean senior intelligence officer has become the highest-ranking military official to defect to South Korea, a government source confirmed to CNN.
The defector was a senior colonel with the North Korean Reconnaissance General Bureau, which is in charge of espionage operations against South Korea, according to South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun and Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee.
North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau is a powerful body, responsible for clandestine operations, including espionage against foreign countries and cyberwarfare operations.
Speaking in separate news conferences Monday, the ministry spokesmen confirmed that reports from South Korea’s semiofficial Yonhap News Agency on the defection were accurate but said they could give no further details. The colonel had defected last year, according to Yonhap, but CNN cannot independently confirm this.
The announcement of the high-level defection followed news last week that 13 North Korean nationals who had been working at a Pyongyang-owned restaurant had defected to South Korea, officials in Seoul announced. The restaurant workers, 12 women and a man, said they had defected after “feeling pressure from North Korean authorities” to send foreign currency back to their homeland, South Korean officials said. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman confirmed that 13 North Koreans who worked in a Pyongyang-owned restaurant in China left the country legally on April 6.
On Tuesday, North Korea threatened defectors in a commentary published in its state-run propaganda site Uriminzokkiri, calling them “gangsters little short of thrusting daggers into the lifeline of all families in the DPRK.”
Many defectors have expressed concern for their family members who remain in North Korea as the regime is said to practice guilt by association — in which people closest to the individual are punished.
The North Korean commentary threatened those who defected to South Korea of “pre-emptive, consecutive attack on them in a more deadly and severe punishment without any warning and prior notice.”
Last week, Pyongyang’s state-run news agency KCNA said North Korea had successfully tested a new engine for an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Pyongyang carried out its fourth nuclear test in January, and last week said it had succeeded in miniaturizing nuclear warheads to fit on medium-range ballistic missiles — which officials in Seoul said they believed was true.