At a London think tank two years ago, I had an argument with a North Korean diplomat. Fed up with his ambassador's peace-loving protestations and the polite questions put to him by the largely British audience, I broke protocol and asked what possible purpose was served by his nation calling the leader of the free world a ‘wicked black monkey’. Afterwards, the embassy's number two official took me aside to explain that the North Korean news agency KCNA had not itself used those words against President Barack Obama; it was simply quoting an ordinary citizen, as newspapers elsewhere in the world typically do. I asked how he could possibly compare Pyongyang's state-run media with the free press of the West. Did he really expect me to believe the vile attacks on Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye were simply the words of a man on the street? Did he believe it himself?
Apparently not. The North Korean diplomat who so loyally defended his nation was Thae Yong-ho, who this July defected to South Korea. He no longer could serve as a flunky to a failing, corrupt system, to paraphrase a South Korean government spokesman. He was disgusted with the government of Kim Jong-un. He also was said to worry about the future of his children in the North Korean regime.
I often wonder how the children of North Korean diplomats who taste freedom abroad can cope with the regimented life back home. As members of the North Korean elite, foreign-ministry officials and their families enjoy a decent lifestyle. But they have to watch their every word to avoid falling victim to leader Kim Jong-un’s wrath. The public purges of Kim’s uncle Jang Song-thaek and senior military officers cast chilling reminders. So too the less well-reported purges of lower-ranking officials who get caught accessing internet sites without permission and are never heard of again.
Thae will have wanted to protect his children from such capriciousness. Luckily, he was able to escape with his entire nuclear family. Although the regime typically requires diplomats to leave one child behind, Thae was allowed to educate both of his sons in London.
Many North Koreans wish they could similarly escape. I have to believe that this is especially true for those, like Thae, who know first-hand the freedoms and prosperity that most of the rest of the world enjoys and see the lies of their own government. It was heartening when 13 workers at a North Korean restaurant in the Chinese city of Ningbo defected in April, the first known occasion of such a group defection. The number of well-connected defectors such as Thae, whose wife has close ties to the Kim family, is said to be rising.
Such defections reflect fissures in the regime. It is tempting to believe that they may also signal an impending regime collapse. Alas, we have seen this movie before. In 1997 the North Korean ambassador to Egypt defected along with his brother, a diplomat in France. The same year Hwang Jang-yop, architect of North Korea’s official state ideology of ‘juche’ (loosely translated as ‘self-reliance’), also defected. It was a time of famine in North Korea and leadership transition after Kim Il-sung’s death, when conditions seemed ripe for regime collapse. Two decades later, however, the state is stronger than ever, even apparently enjoying a degree of economic growth in the face of international sanctions.
It is the state’s military strength, particularly its nuclear programme, which concerns much of the world. For ten years in London, Thae Yong-ho publicly defended North Korea’s weapons development. He will now be able to provide insights to those who are trying to counter the nuclear programme. I wish him well.
Mark Fitzpatrick is Executive Director, IISS-Americas.
Correction, 24 August 2016: This post originally stated that Thae Yong-ho's father fought with former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung against the Japanese. The South Korean national intelligence service reportedly told a closed-door parliamentary committee session that this is not the case.