North Korean Traders in China on Edge in Wake of High-Profile Defection

People watch a television news broadcast showing file footage of Thae Yong Ho, a top North Korean diplomat who recently defected to South Korea, at a railway station in Seoul, Aug. 18, 2016.

Amid the news of the defection of high-ranking North Korean diplomat Tae Yong Ho in London last week, North Korean traders who work in China say they are fearful about what they say, yet envious of Tae’s actions, sources said.

South Korean officials confirmed on Aug. 17 that Tae, a minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, defected to the South with his family in a rare defection of a high-ranking government official.

Jeong Joon Hee, spokesman for South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, said Tae told South Korean officials that he defected because he was disgusted with the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, yearned for South Korean democracy, and worried about the future of his children, according to media reports.

“Because of this incident, North Korean traders in China are stressed out and very discreet about not being implicated in this matter, yet I perceive that they envy and want to applaud the defection of Tae Yong Ho’s family,” a source who knows North Korean traders in China told RFA's Korean Service.

The source and a North Korean trader, whom he has known for five years, watched South Korea’s news coverage of Tae’s exile last week.

The source said he was astonished when his friend opined that those who don’t escape from North Korea when they have a chance to do so, including himself, “have no brain cells.”

The source said he was surprised when his friend added that no one could blame Tae for defecting.

“Although I have friendly relationships with the traders, I empathized with his situation when he poured out his innermost feelings very plainly,” the source said.

“He also expressed genuine surprise once he realized that Tae and his wife are descendants of the North’s core group of ‘partisan guerrillas,’” the source added, in a reference to the anti-Japanese guerilla group led by North Korean founder Kim Il Sung that resisted Japan’s colonial rule over Korea, along with the so-called “Paekdu bloodline.”

Tae’s wife, Oh Sun Hae, is a relative of Oh Baek Ryong, who was close to North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un. The elder Oh was a vice chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC) and chief of Kim Il Sung’s security guards.

Hostages in their own country

The majority of North Korean traders’ family members are “held hostage” inside the isolated country while the traders are in China or elsewhere, so most workers cannot consider defecting, another North Korean source said.

To ensure traders do not defect, North Korean authorities are known to dispatch inspectors to monitor the activities of workers while they are outside the country and summon their families back to North Korea to prevent mass defections.

“The descendants of the partisan guerrillas and Paekdu bloodline [of the Kim family] are the highest elite pedigree sustaining the North Korea regime, but they have not been properly respected since Kim Jong Un came into power,” the source said.

He cited the example of O Kuk Ryol, a former NDC vice chairman who was called a “blood brother” of former NDC chairman Kim Jong Il, but lost all his positions last year.

“There has been talk among North Korean public officials that the partisan guerrillas are nothing now,” he said.

On Saturday, North Korea state media branded Tae an embezzler of state funds, seller of state secrets, and child rapist, calling him “human scum” who defected rather than face up to his transgressions back in North Korea.

A considerable number of North Koreans working overseas are now trying hard to flee to South Korea, and observing how other high-profile defectors such as Tae manage to settle in the South, the sources said.

North Korea routinely exports workers not only to China, but also to Russia, the Middle East, Africa, and  Asia, and requires them to remit most of their earnings to the North Korean government.

Many of these workers will also attempt to escape if they have a chance, the two sources told RFA.

Roughly 1,280 North Koreans defected to South Korea last year, according to the South’s Ministry of Unification.

Tae’s defection came months after the U.N. Security Council imposed economic sanctions on North Korea for conducting banned nuclear and missile tests, and just before American troops began annual military exercises with South Korea.

Reported by Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Hyosun Kim. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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