It was revealed last week that Thae Yong Ho, deputy ambassador of the North Korean Embassy in the United Kingdom, has defected. He is the most senior North Korean diplomatic official to ever defect from the North to the South. Thae is the most recent in a number of defections, prompting speculation that Pyongyang is growing more unstable. The key word here is “speculation.” While there are indications of instability and uncertainty, Kim Jung Un remains North Korea’s supreme leader and there is no viable challenge to his authority.
Thae has an impressive pedigree. His father was a general who fought with Kim Il Sung, founder of the North Korean state and the grandfather of Kim Jung Un. Thae went to high school in China and speaks Chinese and English along with his native tongue. That fluency made him a very visible figure in London, where he was a glib defender of the Pyongyang government and its policies. His wife was equally well connected: Her father was also a close associate of the senior Kim. His children attended British schools; one received a university degree and the other went to a London high school.
The entire family defected to South Korea. After several days of silence, South Korea’s Unification Ministry announced that Thae left because he was “tired of Kim Jong Un’s regime.” The North responded through its KCNA news agency by denouncing Thae as “human scum” and a “criminal” who had been under investigation for “intentionally leaking secrets, embezzling state property” and a “sex offense.”
Thae’s defection is only the most recent — and public — in a recent spate of such moves. There are reports that a North Korean general and several diplomats recently bolted in China. A Korean Workers’ Party official fled while in Russia earlier this year. Yet another diplomat, working in Thailand, defected two years ago. A teenage math prodigy from an elite family sought asylum at the South Korean consulate in Hong Kong after participating in the International Mathematics Olympiad there in July. In one of the biggest black eyes for the North Korean regime, in April 13 waitresses at a North Korean restaurant in China fled to the South as well. The total number of defectors reaching South Korea jumped 15 percent in the first six months of this year compared with 2015.
The Pyongyang government has two concerns about the rising tide of defections. The first is the insight that they, especially those from the highest levels of elite society and the government, can shed on how North Korea and the Kim regime operate. In fact, Thae can offer little insight on this. While he worked with top officials like Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho — previously North Korea’s ambassador to the U.K. and then chief negotiator for the six-party talks over its nuclear program — he has lived in London for over a decade and has little direct knowledge of Pyongyang’s dynamics.
Moreover, while foreign outposts like embassies are notorious for raising money (both legally and illegally), those operations are highly compartmentalized and Thae may have little knowledge about even those within his own embassy. More revealing would be information provided by the general who allegedly defected in China: He is said to have managed the government’s illicit accounts in the General Politics Bureau.
Still more worrisome for the regime is the increasing readiness of elites to flee. This suggests growing uncertainty and concern even among cadres that have benefited most from government policy and have been insulated from hardship. Loyalty toward the leadership has been diminishing for some time and the government’s once-iron grip on all dimensions of society has weakened. Periodic reports of public executions and news that there is a crackdown underway against officials responsible for ensuring the loyalty of elites and security forces tasked with keeping an eye on North Koreans working overseas suggest that brute force and raw fear are the most potent currency to keep North Koreans in line.
North Korea’s economy is not strong, but it has been stable in recent years. South Korean sources reckon that it has been growing since 2010, although it shrank 1.1 percent in 2015. That tightening should continue following the imposition of tougher sanctions agreed by the United Nations and signs that China is finally taking those resolutions seriously. While ordinary North Koreans have long been accustomed to hardship, the upper classes have been spared many difficulties. That may be changing.
This doesn’t mean the end is looming for the Kim regime. It has proven remarkably resilient, and it retains considerable resources and the ability to enforce its will on those it governs. The evidence does suggest that strains will intensify, however, and as they do, the world needs to be prepared. North Korean military capabilities are formidable. Its nuclear and missile forces threaten Japan and other countries in the region. It may soon possess the ability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead that could hit the United States. A government that possesses these weapons and fears for its survival should not be underestimated.
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