North Korean diplomat's mysterious defection latest in rising number

Thae Young Ho is a familiar face among correspondents seeking to travel to North Korea, and among far-left circles in London. His defection to South Korea is one among many North Korean officials this year.

Paul Hackett/Reuters
North Korea's embassy to Great Britain is seen located in a house in a residential district in West London in March.

North Korea’s deputy ambassador in London has defected to South Korea, the South's Unification Ministry said Wednesday, one of the most high-ranking officials to break ranks with the regime in recent years.

Thae Young Ho, a veteran counselor to the ambassador who had resided in London either in or near the embassy for the past 10 years with his family, put "a scrupulous plan" to defect into action earlier this month, an anonymous source told South Korea's JoongAng Daily. Attempts by the North Korean embassy in Britain to find the diplomat had failed, the source added.

Part of Mr. Thae's motive was concern for his child's future, Jeong Joon-hee, a spokesman from South Korea's Unification Ministry, said at a news conference. 

The family is "currently under government protection and relevant institutions are going ahead with necessary procedures as usual," Mr. Jeong said, as Reuters reports. 

Thae was well known in press circles as a main point of contact for correspondents headed to Pyongyang. And in regular appearances at far-left events in London, he was an active but typically levelheaded defender of the North Korean regime, lamenting sensationalistic coverage by the Western press. 

"I don't blame reporters," Mr. Thae said during a 2014 speech at a left-wing London bookshop, according to Reuters. "If they broadcast [North Korea] as it is, the editors of these TV stations and newspapers will [change it]."

"The more horrifying, the more shocking stories they create, the more they will be viewed by the British public."

However, JoongAng Daily's source told the paper that Thae had come under increasing pressure from the North Korean government to deflect international criticism of the country's poor human rights record. 

Civilian defections are down since leader Kim Jong Un assumed power following his father’s death in late 2011, perhaps in part because of tightened surveillance along the border with China. But the numbers of official defectors are up. And as JoongAng notes, this year in particular has seen an increase from both high-ranking officials as well as average citizens. Some 815 people had defected to South Korea so far this year, as of late July – up 15 percent from that time last year, according to official South Korean figures.

A large portion of defectors head to China. The neighboring nation is believed to be home to as many as 100,000 refugees from North Korea, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in April, but the vast majority live a furtive existence out of fear that authorities could repatriate them if discovered.

Hyeonseo Lee, a defector who has published two memoirs dealing partly with the 11 post-defection years she spent in China, told the Monitor this spring that the repatriation policy had effectively sent thousands of people to their deaths by sending them back to Pyongyang, where they face certain imprisonment or death. But she also noted with "pleasant surprise" that China had allowed her to return to Beijing to speak at a book fair.

"I think it's possible that China is ready for a serious change regarding its North Korean defector policy," she told the Monitor in an email. "Chinese people are starting to realize that so many defectors have been suffering in China, and it doesn't have to be this way."

This report contains material from Reuters.

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