By Yi Whan-woo
North Korean diplomats who had managed leader Kim Jong-un's secret overseas funds have escaped the country with his money, sources here said Sunday.
Rumors are circulating that Thae Yong-ho, North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, brought $58 million cash belonging to Kim when he recently defected to South Korea with his family members. The South Korean government denied the rumors, but some analysts here say Thae was one of the diplomats who managed Kim's secret money.
The sources said many of the diplomats worked in Europe, where "a large chunk" of foreign currency has been generated for the cash-strapped Kim regime to pursue its nuclear program.
In June, a senior official at Office 39, a shadow organization which directly reports to Kim concerning the use of his money, disappeared with his children after working in Europe for the past 20 years.
The official, whom some South Korean media outlets identified as Kim Myong-chol, was in charge of overseeing the young despot's European slush funds.
He allegedly took up to $400 million from a hidden bank account. It remains uncertain whether he withdrew the amount in cash or transferred it to a bank account under his name.
In addition, a senior official at Daesung Bank, an auspice of Office 39, fled from his office in China last year after stealing a large sum of Kim's money.
In Singapore, an official responsible for handling 10 billion won of Kim's funds has been missing since 2015.
In August 2014, Yoon Tae-hyung, then-chief of Daesung Bank's Russia branch, carried $5 million with him before seeking asylum in a third country.
"I'd say Kim's secret funds are worth hundreds of billions of won, and in that regards, the combined amount that the North Korean officials stole is considerable," said An Chan-il, a defector and researcher who heads the World Institute for North Korea Studies. "In particular, $400 million taken by Kim Myong-chol is expected to deal a blow to Pyongyang because the money was believed to be from Swiss bank accounts."
He speculated that North Korea used to keep the money collected from European and African countries in the accounts and transfer it back home until the Swiss government froze all North Korea-related bank accounts there in June.
The measure was taken in line with the U.N. Security Council's (UNSC) harshest sanctions imposed against Pyongyang in March, aimed at cutting the flow of hard currency into North Korea.
The experts said more overseas North Korean elites are likely to flee, claiming that it will become harder for them to raise the slush funds under the UNSC sanctions.
"The overseas officials are afraid of being punished for failing to fulfill their jobs, and the only option they're left with to avoid punishment will be to seek asylum," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University, speculated that cases of stealing money from Kim's slush funds are likely to increase in the future.
"International surveillance over banking transactions with North Korea is becoming tighter, and it means Kim's ‘money men' will carry his funds in cash," said Kim. "And it will be easier for them to take money when they decide to flee their country."
Yang said the Kim regime may enhance control over its officials posted abroad.
"The North Korean authorities may bolster surveillance over those in Pyongyang's diplomatic missions by prohibiting them from taking their family members with them," he said.