A top London-based North Korean diplomat has defected to South Korea. Thae Yong-ho, the NK diplomat, who vanished earlier this month with his wife and children, was confirmed by the Ministry of Unification in Seoul to have sought asylum in South Korea. Thae is the highest ranking official from the northern country of the Korean peninsula to have fled to its bitter southern neighbor.
Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, Jeong Joon-hee, a spokesperson at the unification ministry, said that the motives behind the diplomat’s defection were that he, being “sick and tired of the Kim Jong-un regime,” longed for a democratic country and wanted his children to have better prospects for their future. The spokesperson also indicated that the incident was proof that the Kim establishment is dwindling, and at a “breaking point.”
The local experts, however, were skeptical of the bold claim, meanwhile acknowledging that the high-profile defection — the latest in a series of recent defections by the North Korean elites, who are more open to the outside world — is nevertheless a sign indeed that they are getting increasingly disillusioned by the oppressive rule in their country.
“(The impact) is mostly psychological. The very fact that a high-ranking diplomat has defected deals a blow to the Kim regime, which is barely hanging on amid international sanctions and pressure,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
“I don’t think it will prompt a chain reaction of North Korean elites defecting, it’s premature to predict such phenomenon. Thae’s defection is probably an independent event,” he said.
Under Kim Jong-un, North Korea has seen several high-ranking officials assassinated at the young leader’s command. He has reportedly “become enraged” by Thae’s defection and has ordered North Korean families living abroad to return home.
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A No. 2 at the North Korean embassy situated at Ealing, London, the diplomat was ironically employed to keep track of the North’s defectors, according to Evening Standard.
The 55-year-old envoy was also tasked with defending the country’s human rights records and promoting its image to the Britons.
“If the people in this country, or in America, knew that there is a country in the world where there is a free education, free housing, free medical care, then they’d have second thoughts,” Thae had said in one speech, the BBC reports.
As such, his defection is seen as “deeply embarrassing” for the Kim government, according to John Nilsson-Wright, the head of the Asia program at Chatham House. He also added that the top diplomat could provide valuable insider’s information on Kim’s secretive regime to the UK’s intelligence agencies.
“These senior officials are smart, accomplished, well-trained individuals with high levels of English. If sent abroad they don’t spend their time going to cocktail parties. They will be energetic in other activities, including using foul means or fair,” Nilsson-Wright said, according to the Guardian.
Thae Yong-ho is believed to have descended from a privileged family. According to Yonhap News Agency, his late father is said to have been a four-star general of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), as well as a core member of the ruling party of the communist state.
Thae’s defection signals a change in the pattern of the nature of North Korean defectors, who mostly used to be deprived of any privileges.
“It is quite natural for a North Korean diplomat to defect, as they are able to compare South and North Koreas while residing outside the country. I think high-ranking officials living outside North Korea will continue to defect,” said Cheong Seong-chang of the elites, who make up some 30 percent of the population, according to the Korea Herald. Cheong is a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute.
Seoul’s unification ministry, however, has refused to verify Thae and his wife’s familial background.
Whatever the case, the top diplomat’s defection to South Korea is one massive humiliation to the North Korean dictatorship all the same.
[Photo by Ahn Young-joon/AP Images]