A senior North Korean diplomat based in London has defected to South Korea, becoming one of the highest Northern officials to do so, South Korea said Wednesday.
Thae Yong Ho, minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, has arrived in South Korea with his family and is under the protection of the South Korean government, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said. Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-Hee said Thae told South Korean officials that he decided to defect because of his disgust with the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, his yearning for South Korean democracy and worries about the future of his children.
Jeong said Thae was the second-highest official in North Korea’s embassy, and is the most senior North Korean diplomat to defect to South Korea. (In 1997, the North Korean ambassador to Egypt fled but resettled in the United States.) The highest-level North Korean to seek asylum in South Korea is Hwang Jang-yop, a senior ruling Workers’ Party official who once tutored Kim Jong Un’s late father, dictator Kim Jong Il. Hwang died in 2010.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo, senior lecturer in international relations at King’s College London, said this diplomatic defection “could prove very valuable to South Korea, the U.S. and other countries. … Most North Korean defectors have limited access to the inner workings of the North Korean regime,” he said. “The defection of a diplomat would allow intelligence services and military forces in other countries to learn more about the level of support that Kim Jong Un enjoys, recent developments in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs or the extent to which real economic reforms are being implemented.”
Thae, 55, is a veteran diplomat who is experienced in dealing with countries in Western Europe. He led a North Korean delegation that held talks with European Union representatives over the North’s human rights situation in Brussels in 2001, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. He had worked at the North Korean Embassy in London for about 10 years.