South Korea reveals defection last year of 2 N.Korea officials

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North Korean Spy Defects to South Korea

SEOUL/BEIJING (Reuters) -- Two senior North Korean officials, including an army colonel specializing in espionage against the South, defected to South Korea last year, the Seoul government said on Monday.

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News of the defections followed a South Korean announcement on Friday that 13 workers at a restaurant run by the North in an unidentified country had defected, a case it described as unprecedented, arriving in the South a day earlier.

South Korea did not say where the 13 had worked. China said on Monday that 13 North Koreans had been there and had left lawfully. It did not say if they were the same group.

The South's Unification and Defence Ministries said on Monday a North Korean army colonel defected last year and had been granted political asylum. He had worked in the secretive General Reconnaissance Bureau, which is focused on espionage activities against the South.

RELATED: Images of North Korea's supreme leader

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South Korea reveals defection last year of 2 N.Korea officials
This undated picture released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on December 12, 2015 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) inspecting the newly renovated May 9 catfish farm at an undisclosed location in North Korea. REPUBLIC KOREA OUT -- AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP. ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS / AFP / KCNA / KNS (Photo credit should read KNS/AFP/Getty Images)
This undated picture released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on December 12, 2015 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) inspecting the newly renovated May 9 catfish farm at an undisclosed location in North Korea. REPUBLIC KOREA OUT -- AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP. ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS / AFP / KCNA / KNS (Photo credit should read KNS/AFP/Getty Images)
This undated picture released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on December 12, 2015 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) inspecting the newly renovated May 9 catfish farm at an undisclosed location in North Korea. REPUBLIC KOREA OUT -- AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP. ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS / AFP / KCNA / KNS (Photo credit should read KNS/AFP/Getty Images)
FOR USE AS DESIRED, YEAR END PHOTOS - FILE - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves at a parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015. Kim declared that his country was ready to stand up to any threat posed by the United States as he spoke at the lavish military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the North's ruling party and trumpet his third-generation leadership. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves at a parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared Saturday that his country was ready to stand up to any threat posed by the United States as he spoke at a lavish military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the North's ruling party and trumpet his third-generation leadership. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
In this image taken from video made available on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers an annual New Year's Day message in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim boasted Wednesday that North Korea enters the new year on a surge of strength because of the elimination of "factionalist filth" - a reference to the young leader's once powerful uncle, whose execution last month raised questions about Kim's grip on power. (AP Photo/KRT via AP Video) 
In this image taken from video made available on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers an annual New Year's Day message in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim boasted Wednesday that North Korea enters the new year on a surge of strength because of the elimination of "factionalist filth" - a reference to the young leader's once powerful uncle, whose execution last month raised questions about Kim's grip on power. (AP Photo/KRT via AP Video) TV OUT, NORTH KOREA OUT
A man watches a TV news program showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Jan. 1, 2015. Kim, in a nationally televised New Year's Day speech, says he is open to a summit with his South Korean counterpart. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
A man watches a TV news program showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un's New Year speech, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Jan. 1, 2015. Kim, in a nationally televised New Year's Day speech, says he is open to a summit with his South Korean counterpart. The letters read: " Kim Jong Un." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
People watch a TV news program showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un delivering a speech, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Jan. 1, 2015. Kim, in a nationally televised New Year's Day speech, says he is open to a summit with his South Korean counterpart. The letters read: "Meeting." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
** HOLD FOR NORTH KOREA GALLERY ** In this July 27, 2013 file photo, North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un waves to spectators and participants of a mass military parade celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice in Pyongyang, North Korea. If the U.S. government’s claim that North Korea was involved in the unprecedented hack attack on Sony Pictures that scuttled Seth Rogen’s latest comedy is correct, no one can say they weren’t warned. The movie, “The Interview,” pushed all of North Korea’s buttons. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)
Travellers walk past a television screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un's New Year speech, at a railroad station in Seoul on January 1, 2015. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un said he was open to the 'highest-level' talks with South Korea as he called for an improvement in strained cross-border relations. AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JE (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photo taken on April 15, 2012, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, and Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae salute during a mass military parade in Kim Il Sung Square to celebrate the centenary of the birth of his grandfather, national founder Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT
KIM JONG-UN Leader of North Korea at plenary meeting of the central committee of the Worker's Party in Pyongyang in March 2013
In this Wednesday, April 9, 2014 image made from video, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un holds up parliament membership certificate during the Supreme People's Assembly in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea's newly-selected parliament met for the first time on Wednesday in Pyongyang. It was the first time that North Korea has reassembled its parliament under new leader Kim. (AP Photo/KRT via AP Video) TV OUT, NORTH KOREA OUT
In this photo taken on April 15, 2012, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, speaks with Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae during a mass military parade in Kim Il Sung Square to celebrate the centenary of the birth of his grandfather, national founder Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT
In this image taken from video, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends an event to mark the second anniversary of the death of his father, former leader Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang, North Korea Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/KRT via AP Video) TV OUT, NORTH KOREA OUT
FILE - In this July 27, 2013 file photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un leans over a balcony and waves to Korean War veterans cheering below at the end of a mass military parade on Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang to mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice. Japan and North Korea appear to be on the verge of a breakthrough on a bizarre legacy of the Cold War, a secret, government-ordered program that led to the abduction of more than a dozen and possibly several hundred Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 80s by North Korean infiltrators and spies. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)
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South Korea's Unification Ministry, which handles North Korea issues, also said that a senior diplomat who was posted in an African country had defected to the South last year with his family.

The defection of a high-ranking officer in the General Reconnaissance Bureau is a coup for Seoul. The North set up the bureau in 2009, consolidating several intelligence agencies to streamline operations aimed at the South.

Its head, General Kim Yong Chol, is accused by the South of being behind a 2010 torpedo attack against the South that sunk a navy ship and killed 46 sailors. The North denies any responsibility for the sinking.

The bureau is also known to operate an elite team of computer specialists working to infiltrate the networks of the South and other countries and to conduct cyber attacks against key institutions.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency said the North Korean colonel specialized in anti-South espionage operations before defecting and had divulged the nature of his work to South Korean authorities.

South Korean officials declined to comment.

News of the defections come after a period of tension on the Korean peninsula following the North's fourth nuclear test in January and a long-range rocket launch the next month.

'VALID PASSPORTS'

The South Korean government's public acknowledgement of defections is unusual.

The main liberal opposition Minjoo Party on Monday accused the government of conservative President Park Geun-hye of trying to influence conservative voter turnout ahead of Wednesday's parliamentary elections by announcing the defection of the restaurant workers last week.

Both ministries denied suggestions that Monday's revelations were made for domestic political reasons and said disclosing the defections was in the public interest.

China is North Korea's main ally and is known for sending defectors back to the North, so South Korean media reports that restaurant workers had been there initially raised some surprise.

Asked about the workers on Monday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said it had received a report about a group of 13 North Koreans in China who had gone missing.

"After an investigation, (we found) the 13 North Koreans used valid passports to leave the country normally in the early hours of April 6," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular briefing, without saying where they had gone.

"What needs to be stressed is that these people had valid identity documents and legally came to the country, not North Koreans who have entered illegally."

South Korea's Joongang Ilbo newspaper said the 13 worked at a restaurant in the Chinese city of Ningbo until around Tuesday last week when they disappeared, quoting a Chinese worker at the Ryugyong Korean Restaurant.

Calls to the restaurant seeking comment went unanswered.

South Korean media said the 13 left China and traveled to a Southeast Asian country before being flown to South Korea, citing unidentified government sources.

The South's Unification Ministry declined to comment on where the North Koreans had been before arriving in South Korea.

The two Koreas have been fierce rivals since the 1950-53 Koran War and about 29,000 people had fled North Korea and arrived in the South, since then, including 1,276 last year.

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