The Koreas

Former North Korea Diplomat Begins New Life as Regime Critic 

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The Koreas

Former North Korea Diplomat Begins New Life as Regime Critic 

Thae Yong-ho, once one of North Korea’s highest-ranking diplomats, pledges to devote his life to reunification.

Former North Korea Diplomat Begins New Life as Regime Critic 
Credit: Flickr/ (stephan)
Thae Yong-ho, who was North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the U.K. before defecting in August, was due to begin a new life in South Korea after his release from the custody of intelligence services on Friday.

Thae had been undergoing interrogation by the National Intelligence Service at an undisclosed location since August, when he fled North Korea’s London embassy along with his family.

In a closed-door meeting with lawmakers on Monday, Thae reportedly said he would dedicate his new life to Korean reunification in the hope of ending the Kim Jong-un regime’s persecution of his countrymen.

Lee Cheol-woo, chairman of the National Assembly’s intelligence committee, said that Thae was determined to be a visible opponent of the regime, regardless of the risk to his safety. Thae’s disillusionment with Kim’s “reign of terror and oppression” and fears for his children’s future had prompted his shock defection, Lee said.

Thae, whose defection dealt an embarrassing PR blow against Pyongyang, also denied North Korean propaganda claims that he was fleeing a life of crime, including embezzlement and sexual offenses, according to Lee.

As a high-ranking loyalist-turned-opponent of the regime who is fluent in English and highly articulate, Thae’s next moves will be of intense interest to Korea analysts.

“I hope that Thae will embark soon on a more comprehensive written reflection on his experiences as a youth, on the changes that the DPRK has undergone — and not undergone — since the 1970s, his work as a footsoldier for the Kim family regime and the Korean Workers’ Party,” Adam Cathcart, founder of the scholarly collective Sino-NK, told The Diplomat.

Thae has been widely tipped as a likely addition to the Institute for National Security Strategy, an NIS-affiliated think thank that has employed high-ranking defectors including former regime poet Jang Jin-sung.

Hinting at the kind of insights he could offer while acting as a public face of North Korean discontent, Thae reportedly told lawmakers that the regime would likely collapse without Kim as there was no one in line to take his place.

Cathcart, however, cautioned against claims  of regime instability, which South Korean authorities have made repeatedly following high-profile defections.

“There is an understandable tendency among South Korean government entities — including the [presidential] Blue House — to interpret every defection of a DPRK official as handwriting on the wall of the ultimate destruction of the Korean Workers’ Party,” he said, using the abbreviation of North Korea’s official name. “And it is in the interests of defecting officials in particular to openly endorse this notion regardless of whether they truly believe it, simply wish to believe, or do not actually believe it at all.”