Chinese security forces have reportedly captured North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il's family doctor outside Beijing, after what was described as an attempt by the elderly physician to escape his Stalinist homeland. South Korea's Munhwa newspaper says North Korean security forces alerted the Chinese police to the doctor's presence in the outskirts of the Chinese capital.
The doctor, whose name was not given, was said by the newspaper to be in his late 60's. The story quoted a diplomatic source as saying the man was being questioned intensively by Chinese security authorities before being returned to Pyongyang. Tim Peters is the director of Helping Hands Korea, a refugee assistance program based in Seoul. He says there were signs last month of a manhunt in North Korea. "There was a report that a crack combat unit that is ordinarily dispatched at the D.M.Z. was suddenly switched to the border area and speculation was that perhaps a North Korean VIP was on the loose and looking to defect," said Mr. Peters.
Mr. Peters says the case, assuming it turns out to be true, is a relative rarity: only a few high-ranking officials with such close ties to Kim Jong-Il have ever left North Korea. "The fact that the doctor has left indicates to me that the privileges offered by Kim Jong-Il are no longer sufficient to keep people, even the very top people, loyal and I think that is a very significant revelation at this point," he said.
Mr. Peters says that if the doctor has been detained while trying to escape, he faces almost certain execution if he is returned to North Korea.
This is the latest in a series of high-profile North Korean asylum cases to come out of Beijing.
The Canadian government on Friday rejected China's demand that it hand over 44 North Koreans who have taken refuge in the Canadian embassy. Canada has in the past escorted North Korean refugees out of China and helped them find asylum in other countries.
The North Koreans stormed the embassy compound on Tuesday in an apparent bid for asylum.
At least 29 others broke into a Japanese school last month, and nine more entered an American school on Wednesday.
China insists North Korean asylum seekers are illegal migrants and not refugees. Under an agreement with Pyongyang, North Koreans are routinely sent home, where many are reportedly forced into labor camps, tortured or even executed.