Did Kim Jong Un’s money man really defect with $5 million?

Where's the money man?

FRESNO, Calif. — Has Kim Jong Un’s slush fund manager attempted to defect via Russia to a third country? News media around the world say he has, and that his name is Yun Tae Hyong. Every one of their reports is based on an article published by the South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo, which cites an otherwise unidentified source in North Korea.

So far it appears that no one outside the newspaper and its source has publicly confirmed even that Yun is a real person who is (or was) president of Daesong Bank (which does have a long history of managing overseas funds for the North Korean regime). Much less has there been confirmation that he’s attempted to defect with some $5 million in hand, as reported.

“Sad to say I know nothing that would confirm the report, nor have I come across in the past the name of the defector,” said William Newcomb, a former US official who serves on a United Nations Security Council panel of experts on sanctions against North Korea.

The assumption would be that someone in such a high post had “been around for some years,” Newcomb said in an email — but the last list of the secretive Daesong Bank’s officers that he recalled having seen came out more than a decade ago.

If Yun is as described in the JoongAng Ilbo article, though, and succeeds in gaining asylum in a third country, Newcomb — like others who try to follow the North Korean rulers’ money —  “would like to spend some quality time with him.” For years, North Korea’s self-chosen role of bad boy in world politics has inspired efforts to devise sanctions that would stick, and hurt, culminating in a UN resolution last year after the country threatened the United States with a preemptive nuclear strike.

In July the US House of Representatives passed a bill intended to ramp up the pressure further.

The defection story doesn’t lack elements of plausibility. There’ve been reports of fear and turmoil in the ranks of North Korea’s money mavens at home and abroad since last December’s execution of the man who had been the most powerful among them, the young ruler’s uncle by marriage Jang Song Taek.

The South Korean newspaper sought to connect the incidents by reporting that Jon Il Chun, a North Korean ruling party official in charge of overseeing Daesong Bank and similar enterprises, had fallen into political difficulties. North Korean media articles from February 2010 referring to Jon’s participation in two of the late ruler Kim Jong Il’s “guidance” sessions show them once in the company of Jang and both times with Jang’s wife, Kim Kyung Hui, Kim Jong Il’s sister and Kim Jong Un’s aunt.

“I don't know the guy [Yun] but it is not surprising that someone from Daesong, affiliated with Jang, would defect,” said David Asher, who coordinated strategy against North Korean illicit activities and finances for the George W. Bush administration from 2001 to 2005. Asher is currently an adjunct senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

One odd detail of the defection story is that it supposedly has been playing out in Russia, which according to reports has moved closer to North Korea as its relations with the US and Western European countries worsened over Ukraine. Defecting in Russia “seems bizarre,” Asher said in an email.

Another point relating to plausibility is that “It’s not so easy to abscond with $5 million,” Newcomb said. However, he said, “I can think of several ways it could be done.”

Kim Kwang-Jin, who in 2003 defected to South Korea from his post representing a North Korean bank in Singapore, said he had no information on the case and didn’t know Yun personally. But in an email he agreed that such a defector likely would be in a position to shed considerable light on the ins and outs of the regime’s foreign exchange operations. Kim himself since his own defection has revealed a large amount of information.

Kim, currently a fellow of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, assumes that Yun’s name and the amount of money he carried were leaked by officials to the South Korean newspaper. Thus he imagines that his fellow defector “is already kept safely.”

Bradley K. Martin, author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, is the Roger Tatarian Lecturer in Journalism at California State University, Fresno.

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