By Juni Kim
North Korea watchers have been busy for the last few days thanks to the high-profile defection of DPRK’s second-in-command in London, Thae Yong-Ho. While information will continue to emerge about Thae and his motivations, here are five interesting facts that we know thus far.
He defected with his family
Thae was able to defect with his wife and children. Jeong Joon-hee, a spokesman for the South Korean Unification Ministry, noted in a press conference that Thae’s defection was partially motivated by his concern for his family’s future. It is widely reported that in order to deter potential defections, North Korea often punishes relatives still in North Korea. Although the method of Thae’s defection with his family is unknown, the fact that he could secure his immediate family’s safety likely played a large role in his decision.
He was scheduled to return to Pyongyang
Steve Evans, a BBC Korea correspondent, noted that Thae was scheduled to return to Pyongyang with his family. Although it is merely speculation at his point, Thae’s pending return to North Korea may have troubled him because of fear of regime retribution upon his arrival. Evans speculated that negative press about North Korea in the British media may have caused Thae to draw the regime’s ire. In addition, some experts have noted that with increased scrutiny of North Korea’s illicit activities, diplomats such as Thae may be having a hard time meeting quotas of gold, cigarettes and other valuable items they used to smuggle back to Pyongyang.
He is the highest-ranking North Korean diplomat to defect in nearly 20 years
As the second highest ranked North Korean diplomat in London, Thae’s defection makes him the highest-ranking diplomat to defect since 1997, when North Korean Ambassador to Egypt Jang Seung-gil sought asylum with his wife at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Jang Seung-gil was also scheduled to return to Pyongyang at the time of his defection.
He lived in London for 10 years
Thae worked in London for 10 years, which is an unusually long post for a North Korean diplomat. He was thoroughly engrossed in British suburban living, having taken up membership at a local tennis club, and he frequently played golf. Regarding Thae’s adjustment to British life, Evans commented, “He seemed so at home. He seemed so middle-class, so conservative, so dapper.”
He escorted Kim Jong-un’s brother to an Eric Clapton concert
Thae escorted Kim Jong-chul, elder brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and son of Kim Jong-il, to an Eric Clapton concert at Royal Albert Hall in 2015. A BBC video shows Thae with Kim Jong-chul emerging from a vehicle to enter the concert hall, which can be viewed here.
Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Laika ac’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.