Foreign Affairs, Governance

Defection Signals North Korean Elite Discontent?

Meaning of High-Level DPRK Diplomat’s Defection

Thae Yong-ho, a minister in the DPRK embassy in London, UK, has defected with his wife and son to South Korea and is currently under the protection of the government pending formal procedures to process their entry into the country. According to a special press briefing held by the Ministry of Unification (MOU) today, August 17, spokesperson Jeong Joon-hee said the motive for Thae’s defection was “his distaste for the Kim Jong Un regime and yearning for the Republic of Korea’s free democratic system and the future of his child.”

The MOU spokesperson further said Mr. Thae had been posted in the UK for ten years, but disappeared from his West London residence in July. The ministry declined to provide further details on Thae’s situation, including his escape route or how many other family members may have accompanied him on his trip to Seoul.

Victor Cha, CSIS Senior Adviser and Korea Chair, observed that “the Embassy in London is reserved only for some of the foreign ministry’s top officials – such as current foreign minister Ri Yong-ho (formerly Ambassador) and current ambassador Hyun Hak Bong — with a mastery of the English language such that they can propagate their position to Westerners. In this regard, the defection represents the flight of some of the North’s best and brightest – their diplomatic cream of the crop.”

News of Thae’s defection, which first appeared in JoongAng Ilbo on Tuesday, is notable for several reasons. His escape marks the highest ever defection for a North Korean diplomatic official – defections from the diplomatic corps are rare because of their carefully vetted ideology. Thae’s position, according to the August edition of the London Diplomatic List, was listed as a Minister, and ranked just below Ambassador Hak Bong Hyon in the 6-member DPRK embassy, which is staffed by a third secretary and three counsellors. Lastly, he also became the first North Korean diplomat to defect from the London mission since the UK and DPRK first established full diplomatic relations in 2000.

View Thae Yong Ho espousing the benefits of life in DPRK


Who is Thae Yong-ho?

Concrete details on who Thae Yong-ho is will be sparse unless the MOU decides to release more information, but what we do know so far comes from a spate of Korean and international media reporting, including this news focus report by Yonhap News Agency that cited former North Korean diplomats as a source. The 55-year old Thae was known to be one of the DPRK’s point men in Western Europe, having studied in Denmark and also having occupied an overseas post in the U.K. for nearly ten years. He was also reportedly responsible for promoting DPRK’s national image. This according to the BBC, meant spreading the message that the DPRK and Kim Jong-un has been “misreported and misunderstood,” and promoting “positive perceptions” of the leadership. He was a relatively public figure in London and spoke frequently in public settings on behalf of his government. Mr. Thae also spoke English well, evident in the talk he gave in 2014 where he compared life between London and Pyongyang.

What does this mean?

The spate of high profile defections, including Thae Yong-ho, from the ruling class and elite groups in North Korea may indicate greater amounts of dissatisfaction with Kim Jong-un and the regime. This is significant because Kim Jong-un relies on the elite class to maintain power and control in North Korea. If increasing numbers of elites make a rational choice to abandon North Korea because of fears of punishment and an uncertain future, the Kim Jong-un regime will be in significant trouble.

Reported recent defections include: thirteen restaurant workers who had been working in China and escaped to South Korea this last April and a young student competing in the Mathematics Olympiad who sought asylum in Hong Kong in July. Additionally, a North Korean general in charge of managing Kim Jong-un’s foreign currency earnings and a North Korean diplomat who was last seen in Russia also allegedly sought refuge in third-party countries this year. Other reported defections last year include a senior colonel from the North Korean Reconnaissance General Bureau and three North Korean laborers working in Malta.

A total of 29,500 of North Koreans have defected to South Korea over the years, although the numbers have gone down slightly under Kim Jong-un (see graphic) because of tighter border controls. However, latest MOU numbers cited by Korean newspapers showed there has been 815 defections so far in 2016, a 15.6 increase from the same period last year.

Defector Graphic (Numbers)

Thae Yong-ho may also provide South Korea and its allies with critical intelligence information about the North Korean regime. Given that Thae was (ironically) reportedly in charge of tracking North Korean defectors in the U.K. and was also a minister at the embassy, he may be able to provide key information about how North Korean embassies work to raise foreign currency and transfer funds back to the Kim regime in Pyongyang.

This latest defection will also likely cause Kim Jong-un to crack down even further on defections from North Korea. This could mean increasing surveillance and security measures taken in DPRK embassies and North Korean overseas workers’ compounds around the world. Without a change in conditions, pressure applied by the regime in turn could into a vicious cycle causing even greater numbers of people to defect.