Friday 23 February 2018

Top North Korean envoy defects to the South

A man watches news of Thae Yong Ho's defection. Photo: AP
A man watches news of Thae Yong Ho's defection. Photo: AP

James Pearson

North Korea's deputy ambassador in London has defected with his family to South Korea, making him the highest- ranking Pyongyang diplomat ever to flee the isolated regime of Kim Jong Un.

It is not known when or how Thae and his family arrived, or how many relatives accompanied him.

Thae defected due to discontent with the regime of Kim Jong Un in North Korea and for the future of his child, the South's Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee said. It was not clear in Korean whether Jeong was referring to more than one child.

"We know that Deputy Ambassador Thae is saying that his distaste for the Kim Jong Un regime and yearning for the Republic of Korea's free democratic system and the future of his child are motives for the defection," Mr Jeong said, referring to South Korea, adding that Thae and his family were under government protection.

Impoverished North Korea and prosperous South Korea are technically still at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.

South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper had said the diplomat embarked on a defection journey "following a scrupulous plan" and was in the process of "landing in a third country as an asylum seeker".

An official at the North Korean embassy in London would not confirm the defection, describing reports of the event as "quite sudden".

"If it is appropriate to give a response, then you might hear about our response," the official said.

Further calls to the embassy went unanswered. Calls to Thae's mobile phone were redirected to a voicemail inbox.

Thae's defection follows a string of recent such flights by North Koreans, including 12 waitresses at a North Korean restaurant in China who defected to South Korea earlier this year.

Those waitresses have finished a prolonged period of investigation and have entered into normal society, officials say.

The number of defections by North Koreans to the South this year up to the end of last month totalled 814, an annual increase of 15pc.

Several diplomats from North Korea have defected to the South over the last two years. Overall, the number of defectors, mostly from the area near North Korea's border with China, has declined since Kim Jong Un took power after his father's death in late 2011.

Irish Independent

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