August 17, 2016


[Mr. Thae is the most senior North Korean diplomat to flee the secretive nation since Jang Seung-gil, the ambassador to Egypt, defected to the United States in 1997, together with his younger brother, a North Korean diplomat in Paris.]

By Choe Sang-Hun
SEOUL, South Korea A high-ranking diplomat from North Korea who was based in Britain has defected to South Korea, officials in Seoul said Wednesday, making him one of the most prominent North Koreans in recent years to abandon their reclusive government.

The arrival of the diplomat, Thae Yong-ho, the No. 2 official in the North Korean Embassy in London, was announced by Jeong Joon-hee, a South Korean government spokesman, at a news conference in Seoul.

Mr. Thae’s defection, a major embarrassment for the North, was hailed as a victory for South Korea, where relations with the North have soured in recent years over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and missile tests.

Mr. Thae is the most senior North Korean diplomat to flee the secretive nation since Jang Seung-gil, the ambassador to Egypt, defected to the United States in 1997, together with his younger brother, a North Korean diplomat in Paris.

“He is one of the most senior North Korean diplomats” to have defected, Mr. Jeong said, adding that Mr. Thae’s family had come to South Korea with him.

Mr. Thae was second only to Ambassador Hyon Hak-bong at the embassy in London.

Mr. Jeong said Mr. Thae and his family had arrived in South Korea “recently.” The spokesman would not say whether the diplomat, who was being debriefed by South Korean officials, had family members left in the North or what countries, if any, he had traveled through.

The mass-circulation South Korean daily Joong Ang Ilbo reported on Monday that a North Korean diplomat in London had defected, citing an anonymous source. It did not identify the diplomat, but said he had defected early this month after “painstaking preparation.” By the time other embassy officials began looking for him, he was gone, the paper said.

There was no immediate reaction from North Korea to news of Mr. Thae’s defection. The North has typically called defectors “traitors” or has accused South Korea’s intelligence agency of kidnapping them.

According to Mr. Jeong, Mr. Thae told South Korean officials that he had defected because he was disillusioned with the government of Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader. The diplomat also said that he yearned for the South’s freedom and democracy, and that he wanted to give his children a better future, Mr. Jeong told reporters.

“We see his defection as a sign that some of the core elite in the North are losing hope in the Kim Jong-un regime,” Mr. Jeong said, “and that the internal unity of the ruling class in the North is weakening.”

South Korean officials expressed similar views in April when 13 people working at a restaurant run by the North Korean government in China fled to the South. Officials said that unusual group defection reflected growing dissatisfaction in the North with Mr. Kim’s government.

But analysts here have cautioned against drawing such conclusions. Cheong Seong-chang, a senior North Korea analyst at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, said that isolated defections like Mr. Thae’s should not be taken as an indication of instability in the North, and that there was no sign of an organized challenge to Mr. Kim’s rule.

The South Korean government’s unusual decision to publicize high-profile defectors so soon after their arrivals, as it did with the restaurant workers in April, has led some critics to accuse it of waging a propaganda war against the North.

Under President Park Geun-hye of South Korea, the government has focused its diplomacy on persuading countries around the world to sever economic ties with North Korea. South Korean officials cited recent defectors as proof that some North Korean elites abroad were defecting, rather than facing persecution, as it became increasingly difficult to perform their missions under tightened international sanctions.

The JoongAng Ilbo, first reporting the defection of the diplomat, said he decided to flee because he feared persecution for failing to deal effectively with Britain’s growing criticism of human rights in the North. Mr. Kim, the North Korean leader, has disciplined the military and party elites with frequent reshuffling and executions in recent years.

For South Korea, defecting North Korean diplomats could bring with them an intelligence bonanza. North Korean embassies abroad often have played a crucial role in the North’s efforts to acquire equipment for its nuclear and missile programs and trade in weapons and other illicit goods to raise funds for Mr. Kim, officials in South Korea said.

North Korean diplomats abroad live under tight surveillance, ordered to monitor one another for any sign of betrayal, former defectors have said. The North Korean system also ensures that some family members of diplomats abroad are left at home in the North, effectively making them hostages to discourage defections.

But over the years, some North Korean diplomats have managed to escape. A first secretary at the North Korean Embassy in the Democratic Republic of Congo defected to the South in 1991, followed by Hyon Song-il, a North Korean diplomat based in Zambia. Upon arriving in Seoul in 1996, Mr. Hyon said he followed his wife, who had defected to the South earlier after quarreling with the ambassador, her husband’s boss. A North Korean diplomat based in Bangkok fled to Seoul in 2000 with his family.

The number of North Korean defectors arriving in South Korea dropped from 2,706 in 2011 to 1,275 last year, as Mr. Kim ordered his country to tighten border control with China, the first stop for almost all asylum seekers. The number of defectors began picking up again this year, with 749 arriving in the first six months. Mr. Jeong said recent defectors included people of “more diverse background,” including elite members.

Mr. Thae has been well known to the British news media, acting as the embassy’s main point of contact for British correspondents traveling to Pyongyang. Reuters reported that Mr. Thae spoke regularly at far-left events in London, including meetings of a British communist party where he would make impassioned speeches in defense of North Korea.

Steve Evans, a BBC Korea correspondent who had met Mr. Thae in London,remembered the North Korean as a middle-aged man who appeared to enjoy life in the suburbs of west London, where he used to reside. He frequented an Indian curry restaurant and liked to talk about family and health. He switched to tennis after his wife complained about his obsession with golf.

He was one of the North Korean minders to escort Mr. Kim’s brother, Kim Jong-chol, to an Eric Clapton concert in London last year.

Mr. Thae had been scheduled to return to Pyongyang this summer with his wife and son, Mr. Evans reported. “But he seemed so British. He seemed so at home. He seemed so middle-class, so conservative, so dapper,” he wrote. “He had never given any hint of disloyalty to the regime, not a flicker of doubt.”