One of the highest-ranking diplomats ever to defect from North Korea is now in South Korea with his family, officials in Seoul revealed on Wednesday.
Thae Yong-ho, formerly Pyongyang's deputy ambassador in Britain, is currently in the process of seeking asylum in a third country, according to South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, which cited anonymous sources in its report.
South Korea's Unification Ministry, which handles defectors from the reclusive regime of leader Kim Jong-un, declined to say when or how Thae and his family arrived, or how many relatives accompanied him, Reuters reported. Thae reportedly vanished from his residence in west London several weeks ago.
According to the BBC, Thae was tasked with spreading "positive perceptions of the North Korean leadership," and had said publicly that the British were brainwashed into believing "shocking, terrifying" lies about North Korea and its leader.
BBC correspondent Steve Evans, who knew Thae personally, recalled a recent meeting in which the diplomat said he'd been recalled to Pyongyang.
"He showed me not the faintest sign that he and his family had decided not to return," Evans wrote, recalling Thae's fondness for golf and tennis and noting that he had recently been diagnosed with diabetes. "But he seemed so British. He seemed so at home. He seemed so middle-class, so conservative, so dapper. He would have fitted in nicely in suburbia."
Evans said Thae's son had a degree in the economics of public health from a British university, and that his children attended local state schools in the country. He also pointed out that Thae was seen escorting Kim Jong-chul — the older brother of North Korea's supreme leader — when he attended an Eric Clapton concertat London's Royal Albert Hall.
The BBC quoted South Korea spokesman Jeong Joon-hee as saying Thae explained his defection by expressing "disgust with Kim Jong-Un's regime, admiration for South Korea's free, democratic system and the future of his family."
North Korean diplomats often have many unofficial duties in addition to their regular work, and several have been expelled for illicit activities such as drug smuggling, weapons trading, and dealing in illegal wildlife products such as ivory and rhino horn. Thae was not known to have been involved in anything unlawful during his time in London, but he could potentially provide South Korean intelligence agents with information about Pyongyang's covert activities abroad.
"He can certainly speak about foreign policy, directives and policy documents he received from the home country and the country's areas of interest in the UK, the Republic of Ireland and probably Western Europe," said Michael Madden, an expert on North Korean leadership and a visiting scholar at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. "If the DPRK has intelligence assets or ongoing operations in the UK or the embassy was being used as a base of operations for illicit activities then he can speak on those.
"As a diplomat and member of the outer elite he has access to certain channels of information about the regime's affairs and the activities of the core leadership but it's mostly gossip and griping than any hard information," Madden added. "He has been out of the country for 10 years so his knowledge about internal politics and the domestic situation is only limited to his social network."
The highest-ranking North Korean official known to have defected was Hwang Jang-yop, a politician often credited with creating Juche, the country's official state ideology. Several senior managers for Office 39, the bureau in charge of generating hard currency for the Kim regime and orchestrating North Korea's illicit activities, have also defected in recent years, along with members of the country's security services. Jang Jin-sung, a former poet laureate under Kim Jong-il who was involved in creating regime propaganda, is another prominent high-level defector.
Hundreds of North Koreans flee the country each year, with most heading to South Korea. The rate of defections has fallen under Kim Jong-un, partly because of tightened borders and a slightly improved economy, but it has increased so far in 2016. So far this year, 815 people defected to South Korea, up 15.6 percent from the same period in the prior year, according to government data cited by South Korean news agency Yonhap.
In a high-profile incident earlier this year, the entire staff of a North Korean-owned restaurant in the Chinese port city of Ningbo defected en masse to South Korea. The workers — 12 female servers and their male supervisor — were only recently allowed to resettle in the South after undergoing months of questioning, according to Yonhap. Pyongyang alleged that the restaurant workers were kidnapped by South Korean spies. Officials in the country have not yet commented on reports of Thae's defection.
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