On Wednesday, August 17, 2016, officials in Seoul reported that Thae Yong Ho, the second in command of North Korea’s embassy in London, had defected to South Korea with his family. South Korean officials cited as motives for the defection Thae’s distaste for the Kim Jong-un regime and yearning for the Republic of Korea’s free democratic system.
According to the Korea Times’ description of the event, as translated by VOC’s Carol Park:
“The story of North Korean diplomat Thae Young Ho’s defection was as dramatic as if it was a scene in a spy movie. The appearance of the British MI6 intelligence agency and the CIA grants this story a right to be compared to the scale of the movie ‘Berlin.'”
“But the drama of Thae Young Ho’s defection is still unfinished. After all, the due process or reason for defection is still uncertain. The Ministry of Reunification categorized Thae’s case as an ‘immigration-like defection’ spurred by Thae’s longing for freedom from the Kim Jong-un regime and concerns for his child’s future. Some international media have focused on relating the event to recent international sanctions on North Korea. Others have focused on North Korea’s defensive response – the claims that Thae’s case is an ‘eat and leave type defection’ because he was facing investigations for embezzling state funds.”
Thae is the most senior North Korean official to defect in nearly two decades and the highest-ranking Pyongyang diplomat ever to flee to South Korea. The last time a North Korean diplomat of such high rank defected was in 1997, when Jang Seung Gil, the ambassador to Egypt, defected to the United States. According to South Korea’s Reunification Ministry, the number of defections by North Koreans to the South this year through July totaled 814, an annual increase of 15 percent. Several diplomats from North Korea have defected to the South over the last two years, including one from Thailand. According to Sokeel Park of LiNK, an NGO which works with North Korean defectors, “The bigger picture is that while there have been fewer total defections per year under Kim Jong-un, there have been a higher number of strategically significant and political defections.”
In the few days following the report of Thae’s defection, North Korea branded Thae as “human scum” and a criminal. North Korean State media argued that Thae had been ordered to return home in June to be investigated for a series of crimes, including embezzling government funds, leaking confidential secrets, and sexually assaulting a child. Expectedly, they also blamed the South Korean government: “The puppet gang [South Korean government] has even resorted to bringing in human garbage to use in scheming propaganda against the republic [North Korea] and fratricidal antagonism.”
These types of responses once again highlight the nature of Kim Jong-un’s regime and its clumsy attempts to cover up its failure to keep even their privileged population happy. While it is hasty to judge whether Thae’s defection indicates future instability in Kim’s regime, the overall trend of defections indicates no signs of improvement in North Korea’s social and political scene.