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North Korean defector Thae Yong-ho was among Pyongyang’s ‘best and brightest’

According to South Korean media reports, both Thae and his wife come from blue-blooded North Korean revolutionary stock

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 August, 2016, 6:33am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 August, 2016, 6:33am

A privileged background and powerful connections with the ruling elite back in Pyongyang appear to have provided the springboard for North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho’s successful defection to South Korea, analysts said on Thursday.

Thae, the number two at the North Korean embassy in Britain, is one of the highest-ranking diplomats ever to defect to the South – gifting Seoul a major propaganda coup at a time of rising tension on the divided Korean peninsula.

Any defection by a ranking member of an overseas North Korean mission would make waves, but London is considered a particularly prestigious posting that puts Thae’s move on a whole different level.

“The embassy in London is reserved only for some of the foreign ministry’s top officials,” said Victor Cha, director of Asian studies for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Previous ambassadors to Britain include North Korea’s recently appointed foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho.

Thae’s defection represents the flight of some of the North’s best and brightest – their diplomatic cream of the crop
Victor Cha, Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington

“In this regard, Thae’s defection represents the flight of some of the North’s best and brightest – their diplomatic cream of the crop,” Cha said.

Prior to his defection, Thae had worked at the embassy for 10 years – an unusually lengthy period of time in such a high-profile posting.

Overseas diplomats are generally recalled to Pyongyang every three or four years and undergo a period of “re-education” before being posted abroad again.

Thae’s defection was also eased by having his wife and children with him. Some diplomats have to leave family members in the North, precisely to deter flight impulses.

Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul also noted reports that one of Thae’s sons had already graduated from university, while another was due to take up a place at Imperial College London.

“That’s unusual, because diplomats’ children are normally called back to the North after they graduate high school,” Yang said. “All of this suggests he had impeccable credentials and must have been considered very loyal and trustworthy in Pyongyang.”

According to South Korean media reports, both Thae and his wife were of blue-blooded North Korean revolutionary stock.

Thae’s late father was believed to be a four-star general, Thae Pyong-ryol, who fought with North Korea’s founder leader Kim Il-sung against Japanese colonial forces, the Yonhap news agency reported. And his wife Oh Hae-son was also related to a senior ranking member of the anti-Japanese guerrilla campaign, Oh Baek-ryong.

The JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, which had broken the original story of Thae’s defection, published a grainy black-and-white photo on Thursday, purportedly showing Oh Baek-ryong standing next to Kim Il-sung in 1947 and holding Kim’s son and eventual successor, Kim Jong-il, in his arms.

During his stint in London, a large part of Thae’s duties involved countering criticism of North Korea’s human rights record and other negative media coverage.

British journalists who met him, described Thae as likeable, urbane and highly articulate – qualities that come across in a series of talks posted on YouTube in which, among other things, he compares life in Britain and North Korea.