A senior North Korean diplomat who sources say was in charge of monitoring defectors from the totalitarian country became one himself when he defected to South Korea on Wednesday.
A minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, Tae Yong Ho became one of the highest-ranking government officials ever to defect from the country when he and his family landed in South Korea.
Tae not only played a leading role in the efforts by the North Korean regime to improve its image by working with the current North Korean ambassador to the U.N. and the ambassador to the United Kingdom, but was also the Workers’ Party secretary in charge of ideological education for embassy families.
His wife, Oh Sun Hae, is a relative of Oh Baek Ryong, who was close to North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un. The elder Oh was a previous vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and a chief of Kim Il Sung’s security guard.
It’s unclear why Tae and his family decided to defect, but some analysts say that Tae may have experienced psychological pressure from the unrealistic and excessive orders made by higher officials.
A source affiliated with North Korean Refugees Solidarity group headquartered in England says Tae was a leading figure in filing written reports back to North Korea on the movements and activities of defectors.
Recently, Tae had taken the lead in sabotaging North Korean defector organizations, during which time he may have experienced extreme pressure from his bosses to win back North Korean defectors, the source said.
Seoul's Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-Hee said Tae told South Korean officials that he decided to defect because of his disgust with the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, his yearning for South Korean democracy and worries about the future of his children, according to media reports.
Jeong said Tae was the second-highest official in North Korea's embassy in London, and is the most senior North Korean diplomat to defect to South Korea. In 1997, the North Korean ambassador to Egypt fled but resettled in the United States.
The highest-level North Korean to seek asylum in South Korea is Hwang Jang Yop, a senior ruling Workers' Party official who once tutored Kim Jong Il. Hwang's 1997 defection was hailed by many South Koreans as an intelligence bonanza and a sign that the North's political system was inferior to the South's. Hwang died in 2010.
The latest defection is sure to become an embarrassment to Kim Jong Un. The regime often accuses South Korea of abducting the defectors and labels them as traitors.
It also comes at a tense time in relations between North Korea and South Korea and its allies.
Wednesday's announcement came as North Korea is responding angrily to a U.S. plan to place an advanced missile defense system in South Korea. The North has warned of unspecified retaliation and fired several missiles into the sea earlier this month.
Reported by Dongkuk Kim for RFA's Korea Service. Translated by Jackie Yoo. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.