The decision that North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho made to defect from a regime he had spent his whole life defending did not happen overnight. His misgivings had been simmering for two decades, even as he went around Europe espousing the superiority of the North Korean system. “I’ve known that there was no future for North Korea for a long time,” Thae told The Washington Post.
In the 1990s, as a relatively young diplomat, Thae Yong-ho was posted to Denmark, where his youngest son was born, and after that to Sweden. In Scandinavia, home to the flagbearers of European socialism, Thae’s eyes began to open. “During my first foreign posting in Denmark, I came to doubt and question whether North Korea could say that it was a true socialist or communist system,” he said. “North Korean society doesn’t have the concept of comparing,” he said. “The more time you spend in the outside world, the disbelief in your system grows more and more.”
During this second stint in London, in the second year of Kim Jong Un’s regime, Thae’s concerns started to become unbearable. “Not only me but other North Korean elites were hopeful that because Kim Jong Un had studied abroad and was young, he might change the policy direction and modernize North Korea,” he said. But his doubts heightened after Kim had his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, executed at the end of 2013. Although executions are not rare in North Korea, there was something disturbingly arbitrary about this one, Thae said.
Still, he continued his duties in London, voicing the idea that North Korea was a “people’s paradise” with free housing, health care and education. But at home, Thae’s youngest son, who was still in high school and hoped to study computer science at a top London university, was asking why North Korea doesn’t allow the Internet, why North Koreans are not allowed to watch foreign films, why North Koreans can’t read any books they want. “As a father, it was hard for me to tell lies, and it started a debate within the family,” Thae said.
Last July, after much preparation and as the end of his posting was approaching, Thae defected with his wife and both their sons.