Senior North Korean diplomat reportedly defects in London (updated)
August 17, 2016 3 Comments
A senior member of North Korea’s diplomatic representation in the United Kingdom, who is considered one of his country’s leading specialists in Western European affairs, has reportedly defected “to a third country” with his family. The alleged defection was first reported on Tuesday by South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo. Citing “a source with in-depth knowledge of North Korea”, the Seoul-based paper said that the diplomat had disappeared several weeks ago, and that staff at the embassy of North Korea in London had failed in attempts to find him. Later on the same day, the British state-owned broadcaster BBC identified the missing diplomat as Thae Yong-Ho.
In a brief report, the BBC said that the diplomat had lived with his wife and children in London for a decade, and that the family —especially its younger members— were very integrated in British culture and way of life. Further updates in South Korean media said Thae was serving as deputy consul at the embassy, essentially as second-in-command after Ambassador Hak Bong Hyon. It is also believed that Thae was tasked with promoting a positive image of North Korea to British audiences, and was also in charge of cultivating the embassy’s relations with the UK Korean Friendship Association, an organized group of North Korean ideological sympathizers in Britain. But some reports indicate that the alleged defector also performed intelligence tasks, such as monitoring the activities of North Korean defectors living in London.
Thae is believed to be a senior member of North Korea’s diplomatic community. He grew up in China and is fluent in Chinese and English, in addition to his native Korean. He joined North Korea’s diplomatic ranks soon after graduating from university and is said to be one of the country’s foremost experts on Western Europe. If confirmed, his defection will deliver a serious blow to North Korea’s prestige and arguably hurt its intelligence capabilities in the West. This development will also have a major impact on the operations of the Asian country’s embassy in London, which is run by only five diplomats, including the ambassador. No comments have been made on this story by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the embassy of North Korea in London, or the government of South Korea. According to JoongAng Ilbo, Thae is currently “going through procedures to seek asylum in a third country” with his family.
Update 17 Aug. 2016, 5:00 p.m. GMT: The BBC now reports that Thae has defected to South Korea and that he and his family are “under the [South Korean] government’s protection”, according to officials in Seoul. He is believed to be the most senior North Korean official to have ever defected in the history of the communist state.
► Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 August 2016 | Permalink