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What Does It Mean When A North Korean Diplomat Defects?

South Koreans watch TV news showing a file image of Thae Yong Ho, a minister at the North Korean Embassy in London who recently defected to South Korea.
Ahn Young-joon
South Koreans watch TV news showing a file image of Thae Yong Ho, a minister at the North Korean Embassy in London who recently defected to South Korea.

Something curious is happening to North Korean officials abroad. A growing number of diplomats and other North Koreans working for the regime overseas are defecting from their posts.

At least, it certainly seems that way if you are following the South Korean media.

South Korea's government confirmed the most recent case, of Thae Yong Ho, the deputy ambassador at North Korea's embassy in London. He managed to get himself and his family on a flight to Seoul, the capital of the South.

But what's the significance of this and other North Korean defections?

Information about defections usually comes primarily, if not entirely, from South Korea, which means that country sets the tone for how important the case is. And even veteran North Korea watchers can reach very different conclusions about what a defection says about the stability of Kim Jong Un's regime or the state of relations between North and South.

Thae is probably not the only one in North Korea's broadly defined diplomatic orbit to disappear from his post this year. The South Korean newspaper Joongang Daily, citing anonymous sources in South Korean intelligence, puts the number of diplomatic defections at as high as seven. More conservative estimates say it's probably more like three.

"There's a diplomat that works in Africa. Another fellow in Asia, somewhere in Southeast Asia. And then there's Thae Yong Ho," says Michael Madden, a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute who tracks changes in North Korean personnel at North Korea Leadership Watch. "Those are the three that I know have vacated their posts. The other two [besides Thae], it's never been clear where they have gone."

Depending on whom you ask, these could be part of the defections that have been taking place for many years — or a sign that the North Korean leadership is fragmenting.

The South Korean Take

The South Korean government said Friday that it's seen a "series" of senior defections.

Jeong Joon-hee, a Unification Ministry spokesman, told a press briefing that these defections are believed to be "the result of Kim moving to consolidate his power and growing internal insecurity."

"We're concerned that North Korea could make more provocative acts as it takes steps to prevent further defections," Jeong added.

Under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, who took power after his father died in 2011, around 1,400 North Koreans renounce their citizenship and wind up in South Korea each year.

The North Korea watchers tend to focus less on these "general population" defections, and more on defections by key North Korean officials who work abroad.

"If it is a trend, Kim Jong Un is going to stop it. And we're certainly going to start hearing stories coming out of defector news outlets of a disciplinary process and indoctrination and the like in North Korea," Madden says.

One theory about North Korean diplomatic defections is that illicit activities carried out on behalf of the regime are becoming more difficult. According to the North Korea observers, the regime has attempted to raise hard currency through elephant tusk smuggling, counterfeiting money and cigarette dealing.

But pressure from the international community has increased, and this may have contributed to some defections, according to the University of California, San Diego's Stephan Haggard, a longtime North Korea researcher.

He believes North Korea is more vulnerable to an economic crisis than a political one.

"In the absence of trade, North Korea exports labor. But now that's getting squeezed because of the international pressure on the importers of [North Korean] labor," Haggard said at a recent talk for the East Asia Foundation in Seoul.

Controlling The Narrative

But there's another way to look at this, according to some analysts. They say the South Korean government plays up or plays down defections depending on the state of relations between the two countries.

"Peculiarly, this year the [South Korean] government has been publicizing defections more frequently," says Yang Moojin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.

Yang says that in the past, South Korea's government has sometimes chosen not to announce even "higher-profile" defections if they came at a moment when South Korea was trying to avoid friction with the North.

But this year, relations are rockier and South Korea is trying to put pressure on the North for its rocket and nuclear tests. It also happens that South Korea has been emphasizing North Korean defections.

Back in April, South Korea shared news of the mass defection of more than a dozen North Korean restaurant workers from their post in China. The timing played into the narrative of those supporting the additional sanctions against the North. A new round of sanctions, described by the U.S. as the "toughest in decades," had just gone into effect.

Then came the announcement that a colonel from North Korea's spy agency had defected in the fall of 2015. But there was no explanation as to why South Korea hadn't announced the defection when it happened, which was months earlier.

Political Motivations?

Instead, the South Korean announcement of the colonel's defection came just days before a legislative election in which President Park Geun-hye's ruling party faced possible losses.

And scattered throughout the South Korean news this year have been reports with unnamed government officials telling the media that "key" North Koreans abroad have disappeared and absconded with money.

Both things can be true at the same time: North Korean defections are taking place with some regularity, and the South is using the defections to promote their political aims.

But all these factors make it difficult to gauge the meaning of North Korean defections.

"Everything we see [with North Korea] we think is significant because we know so little. So you turn the magnifying glass on this and you might say it looks significant or the leadership is shaky," says Madden. "The converse of that is, people might defect for very, very personal reasons. Might have nothing to do with politics or the political system. Whether the allegations are true or not, sometimes they defect because they're criminals. Or their kid doesn't want to be conscripted into the Korean People's Army."

Both Madden — and Yang — say they'd start more closely watching if an actual North Korean ambassador, or one of the guys pictured with Kim Jong Un this year, disappeared.

"Thae Yong Ho was a member of the outer elite and not the in-crowd. Get a member of the in-crowd [defecting] and then it's time to worry," Madden says.

Haeryun Kang contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 28, 2016 at 9:00 PM PDT
The previous version of this post misstated the year of Kim Jong Il's death. He died in 2011, not 2012.
Elise Hu
Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.