North Korea defector Thae Yong Ho among trusted elite

Thae Yong Ho, North Korea's deputy ambassador in London who has, according to media reports, defected with his family, speaks on a podium in London in the still image taken on Aug 17, 2016 from a file footage.
Thae Yong Ho, North Korea's deputy ambassador in London who has, according to media reports, defected with his family, speaks on a podium in London in the still image taken on Aug 17, 2016 from a file footage.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - 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 (Aug 18).

Mr Thae, the No.2 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 Mr 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 Dr 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, Mr Ri Yong Ho.

"In this regard, Thae's defection represents the flight of some of the North's best and brightest - their diplomatic cream of the crop," Dr Cha said.

Prior to his defection, Mr 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.

Mr 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 Mr 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," Prof Yang said.

"All of this suggests he had impeccable credentials and must have been considered very loyal and trustworthy in Pyongyang," Prof Yang added.

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 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 Mr Thae's duties involved countering criticism of North Korea's human rights record and other negative media coverage.

British journalists who met him, described Mr 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.