Born into North Korea’s elite class, Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat, was destined for great things. In the 1990s, he was posted to North Korea’s embassy in Denmark.
Only then, living in the West, did doubt about the system he was indoctrinated in begin to grow. “I learned that North Korea is not a socialist paradise, which I was taught,” Thae said in an interview. “So from that time on, the suspicion inside me is growing.”
It would take another two decades before Thae made a monumental decision that has made him both internationally famous and an assassination target for the regime he was once proud to serve.
Defection is a gradual process, he said, not a snap decision. He had been holding out hope that North Korea might embrace change. “[I hoped] that one day North Korea can become like Vietnam or China,” Thae explained. But his optimism was shattered when former leader Kim Jong-il announced he would be succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-un, who he knew would not be a reformer.
While living in Copenhagen, Stockholm and, lastly, London, Thae saw his two now-adult boys increasingly become at home with life in countries where democracy, a free media, open education, public health systems and plentiful food was normal.
Whenever Thae and his family had to return to North Korea, as diplomats do periodically, they had to conceal the lives they had been living in order to keep faith with the false messages transmitted to the people by the Kim regime. His boys could not talk about the internet or social media; they had to pretend living in the West was ugly.
Unless he acted, he knew he and his family would have to continue the unimaginable pretense of their double lives. Thae said his decision to become one of North Korea’s highest-ranking defectors ever was made out of love for his sons and their future children. “So as a father, I thought that it is my last mission to cut off this kind of slavery system, you know, for my sons,” he said.
In 2016, Thae and his family walked out of North Korea’s embassy in Ealing, West London, for the last time. Thae knew not only that his defection to South Korea would require high-level protection for his wife and sons; it would likely make life unbearable for his wider family back home. Knowing they could be working in forced labor camps or worse is a pain he cannot escape.
[Sydney Morning Herald]