Photo/IllutrationAn anti-terror drill involving the military and the private-sector is held at the No. 2 International Passenger Terminal of Incheon Port in South Korea on Aug. 22. (Provided by The Dong-A Ilbo)

SEOUL--North Korean leader Kim Jong Un became so enraged by a spate of recent defections that he sent assassins to South Korea and elsewhere to silence the renegades, according to government officials here.

They said Kim also ordered hit teams to target South Koreans for assassination or abduction as a tit-for-tat measure.

Kim, chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, issued the edict in response to a succession of high- or mid-level defections, the officials said Aug. 21.

The pudgy North Korean leader was apparently seething after he learned that 12 female workers and their manager at a North Korean restaurant overseas defected en masse to South Korea this past spring.

Hit teams were set up by the State Security Department, the organ that operates the secret police, and the Reconnaissance General Bureau, which handles intelligence matters, among other organizations.

“North Koreans have recently defected on political grounds rather than economic reasons in quick succession," said an official of the South Korean Ministry of Unification. "North Korea seems to be feeling that its political system is in danger.”

Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo, replying to questions about the defections in the national assembly on Aug. 22, said: “It is apparent that the number of high-level defectors has increased recently. This is partly due to the impact of sanctions against North Korea.”

However, a source who is very knowledgeable about the issue, suggested that the South Korean government has put too much stock "in the recent defection of a minister at the North Korean Embassy in Britain for use in its propaganda" war over which political system is better.

North Korea has knocked off defectors in the past. In 1997, for example, a nephew of a former wife of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was killed after he defected to South Korea.

In 2010, North Koreans masquerading as defectors were arrested in South Korea for trying to assassinate Hwang Jang Yop, one of the highest-level defectors. Hwang formerly held a senior post in North Korea’s ruling party.

The hit team was said to be acting on orders from Kim Yong Chol, director of the Reconnaissance General Bureau.

In light of those past cases, the South Korean government is taking precautions against possible assassinations or abductions of North Korean defectors who are in a position to influence public opinion, as well as South Koreans living in China close to the border with North Korea or in Southeast Asia.