Senior North Korean Diplomat Based in U.K. Defects to South

  • South says No. 2 at North Korean embassy yearned for freedom
  • Defection of diplomat is one of the highest-profile in years

People watch a TV news showing Thae Yong Ho on Aug. 17.

Photographer: Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo

A North Korean diplomat based in the U.K. has become one of the most senior regime officials in years to defect to South Korea, the nation’s Unification Ministry said on Wednesday.

Thae Yong Ho, the second highest-ranked official at the North Korean embassy in London, has arrived in South Korea with his family, ministry spokesman Jeong Joon Hee told reporters in Seoul. Thae told South Korean officials that he defected because of his disillusionment with Kim Jong Un’s regime and his yearning for freedom, Jeong said.

"We’re aware of the matter, but we have no further comment," the U.K. Foreign Office said in a statement. South Korea’s Defense Ministry didn’t comment on the issue at a briefing Thursday.

The question now is how Pyongyang responds. Adam Cathcart, a lecturer at the University of Leeds who studies North Korea-China relations and met Thae a few times in London, said it will probably be months before any information on him makes its way into the public domain in North Korea. Surveillance and political monitoring of North Koreans working legally abroad is "sure to be tightened," Cathcart said.

“The North Korean government could respond as it has for other defections in recent years, by putting together a propaganda campaign that would probably smear Thae as an immoral individual who has been driven by profit for years, trotting out members of his extended family still in North Korea for video testimonials," said Cathcart, who added that Pyongyang could also say nothing.

North Korea has dispatched censorship teams to countries including China after a number of defections, Yonhap News reported Thursday, citing unidentified people familiar with North Korea issues. In May, the Pyongyang regime publicly executed six officials in charge of supervising North Koreans working overseas after the defection of 13 workers at a restaurant in China.


The defection comes amid tensions in East Asia over South Korea’s decision to deploy a U.S. missile-defense system as protection against regular attacks from North Korea. Kim’s regime has resumed production of plutonium and has no plans to stop its nuclear tests -- it conducted its fourth earlier this year -- as long as perceived threats from the U.S. continue, Kyodo News reported Wednesday, citing North Korea’s Atomic Energy Institute.

For an explainer on North Korea’s nuclear development, click here.

The two Koreas are separated by one of the world’s most heavily fortified borders. Millions of Koreans were separated from their families during the 1950-53 Korean War. About 22,000 have been reunited temporarily through visits since 1985 and 66,000 South Koreans are still waiting, according to the Unification Ministry. The two governments ban their people from communicating or meeting with one another without specific consent.

"It is one thing to blame South Korean intelligence for misleading a dozen young waitresses working overseas, it would be another thing entirely for the DPRK to assert that a seasoned diplomat was in fact defecting under duress," Cathcart said.

Privileged Life

Thae was among the privileged few in North Korea, having attended high school in China and doing post graduate studies in Denmark, according to local news reports. His father fought alongside the nation’s founder Kim Il Sung against colonial Japan, and was a four-star general and member of the ruling party’s central committee before his death in 1997, Yonhap News reported.

Thae, who was scheduled to return to Pyongyang this summer after completing his stint in the U.K., went missing along with his wife and two sons in mid-July, the BBC reported.

Cathcart said that Thae was always very friendly and cordial, and enjoyed singing North Korean songs. "At events I attended he was the quiet observer keeping tabs on his ambassador, and never hinted at anything other than staunch loyalty to the Workers’ Party."

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