What North Korean defections mean

Story highlights

A North Korean senior intelligence officer has become the highest-ranking military official to defect to South Korea

Terence Roehrig: North Korea seems determined to grow its missile capabilities

CNN  — 

Editor’s note: Terence Roehrig is professor of national security affairs and director of the Asia-Pacific Studies Group at the U.S. Naval War College. These views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the Navy, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

A report Tuesday that North Korea could be preparing to launch a ballistic missile with the potential to hit parts of the United States is just the latest reminder of the continuing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The news comes amid a flurry of North Korean launches and threats in recent weeks, and amid rumors that Pyongyang might be preparing for another nuclear test.

How seriously should such threats be taken? In many respects, much of this is not a surprise; North Korea seems determined to grow its missile capabilities. The difficulty, of course, has always been separating rhetoric and reality with a nation from which it is notoriously difficult to secure concrete information.

Terence Roehrig

But a series of defections – including one by what is believed to be the highest ranking military officer so far – could offer some useful insights into what is going on there.

Over the past few days, the South Korean government has taken the highly unusual action of announcing the arrival of a number of high-profile North Korean defectors to the South. The defectors include a group of 13 workers from a North Korea-owned restaurant in China.

The North Korean government operates more than 130 restaurants in a dozen countries to earn hard currency that is sent back to Pyongyang. In addition, government officials also confirmed the defections of two North Korea diplomats. One reportedly worked on economic matters in the embassy of an African country and defected in May 2015 with his family, while another diplomat was reported to have defected from an Asian nation in February.

Most interesting, though, was the revelation on Monday that a high-level military officer who held the rank of colonel defected in 2015. The South Korea Defense Ministry offered few details, but confirmed that he was from the Reconnaissance General Bureau, or RGB, which was created in 2009 with the merger of several military and party organizations.

The organization reports directly to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and is responsible for intelligence gathering and espionage, along with the recent addition of cyberoperations under Bureau 121. Bureau 121 has itself been responsible for hack attacks on several South Korean media outlets, government institutions and banks, and is believed by U.S. officials to have been behind the 2014 attack on Sony Pictures.

Security issues

Media reports indicate the officer may have been in charge of espionage operations in South Korea, and he is believed to be the highest-ranking military leader to have ever defected to the South. With all this in mind, it is clear why he could prove to be valuable.

It is difficult to obtain reliable insights information into the inner workings of the North Korean government given the opaque nature of the regime. Access to a high-level military official familiar with the North Korean system and leadership will therefore be an important asset on military and intelligence matters. In short, the defection of such a high-level member of the regime is both a serious security breach and an embarrassment for Pyongyang.

But the announcement of the colonel’s defection is part of a larger story. The public acknowledgment of defections is unusual, and government policy has typically been to keep these events quiet so as not to endanger remaining family members in the North (or other defectors that might be en route or considering such a move).

The South Korean government has made the case that these defections are a sign that the economic sanctions imposed in the wake of North Korean weapons testing are working, and that people are voting with their feet. Conservative media sources, meanwhile, are also making the argument these defections are a sign of serious elite discontent that may lead to instability in North Korea.

MORE: North Korea sentences U.S. student to 15 years hard labor

Instability on the horizon?

Critics say the revelations are political and intended to influence the upcoming National Assembly elections by highlighting security issues. They argue that by highlighting the supposed success of recent sanctions, the government is hoping to energize conservative support for the ruling Saenuri Party.

Adding an additional layer of intrigue is a report by the progressive Hankyoreh newspaper, which reported that the Unification Ministry did not want to release information on the defectors, but was forced to do so by the Park Geun-hye administration. The government has for its part denied there were political motives in announcing the defections, maintaining the high-level nature of these examples and their links to U.N. sanctions and elite discontent were important to reveal.

Still, whatever the truth behind the debate over the release of information, the escape of such a prominent military and intelligence official is important. The colonel will not only be able to furnish valuable information on military operations and tactics, but may also provide better clarity into the strategic thinking of North Korea’s leadership. Moreover, these defections might start to reveal more about elite behavior in North Korea. Could such defections, for example, be early indicators of political instability?

The North Korean regime will undoubtedly remain a serious security and intelligence challenge for the U.S. and regional allies like South Korea, and the information provided by defectors of all levels cannot be taken at face value – it must be examined carefully. But the type of information that could potentially be gleaned from the sources revealed this past week may be one of the few windows we have to improving our understanding of one of the most isolated nations in the world.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.
Read CNNOpinion’s Flipboard magazine.