Features | Politics | East Asia

North Korea’s Elite Defectors

Despite its avowedly socialist nature, North Korea is governed by a rigid class system – and not all defectors come from the bottom.

Mitch Shin
North Korea’s Elite Defectors

Thousands rally to welcome the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, on October 12, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin

Jo Song Gil, North Korea’s former acting ambassador to Italy, has been confirmed to be living in South Korea, making him quite possibly the top-ranked defector living in the county.

Jo and his wife disappeared in November 2018, but his whereabouts were for a long time uncertain, with many believing him to be living undercover in Europe. But according to recent news reports, Jo and his partner have actually been living in South Korea for the past 15 months.

Local news media reported that Jo’s wife had asked the National Intelligence Service (NIS) for permission to return to the North, out of concern for the safety of her teenage daughter and her family. The NIS approved the request, but also made clear that “Jo and his wife voluntarily defected to the South.”

Free Joseon, a group opposed to the Kim Jong Un regime that claims to represent an alternative provisional government for North Korea, helped Jo and his wife find their way to the South. The U.S.-based group, also called “Cheollima Civil Defense,” previously helped Kim Han Sol keep safe from his potential North Korean adversaries after his father, Kim Jong Nam, was assassinated in 2017. In a very murky incident, Free Joseon was also responsible for raiding the North Korean embassy in Madrid in 2019.

“Unless the former North Korean diplomat in question comes forward himself, publicizing his case may unnecessarily increase the risk to his family,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “As a member of the North Korean elite – by birth, education, and profession – he is privy to information that could be damaging to a totalitarian system. If more become outspoken like Thae Yong-ho, they could encourage further defections and undermine the Kim regime.”

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Songbun: North Korea’s Apartheid

Kim Il Sung, the state founder of North Korea, created the songbun (literally, “ingredients”) system, which determines a person’s fate based on their ancestors’ background and status.

Fyodor Tertitskiy, a senior researcher at Kookmin University’s Institute of Korean Studies, told The Diplomat that the songbun is similar to India’s caste system.

“This is somewhat similar to the caste system in old India but it is more flexible because my understating is the old India’s caste system cannot be changed in any circumstances. Songbun is occasionally upgraded and downgraded.”

Tertitskiy also mentioned that the songbun has changed over time, adding that it is possible that no one outside North Korea fully understands the divisions that exist today.

“For example, 51 subdivisions of songbun existed in the 1970s, but [it] may be different now because all these things [which have been published by news outlets] were leaked in 1993. [And] to my knowledge, nothing has been leaked [since then].”

The system is heavily based on the socio-economic-political background of citizens’ families, including grandparents. It is hugely important. Songbun functions as a guideline used by authorities when citizens are seeking educational or job opportunities, as well as if they apply for membership in the ruling Workers’ Party.

It broadly divides people into three groups – “core” (haeksim), “wavering” (dongyo) and “hostile” (choktae). However, that is a simplification: There are, in total, 51 grades within the system, according to an in-depth 2012 report by Robert Collins entitled, “Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System,” published by the U.S.-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

While he compares the system to apartheid in South Africa, Collins concedes that it is possible for persons, in exceptional circumstances, to change their songbun.

Those in the loyal “core” class are mainly the descendants of patriotic martyrs who fought both during the period of Japanese colonial rule and in the Korean War. They are the ones who keep the regime safe and are highly loyal to the dynasty’s power and political ideology. The ruling Kim family is itself a member of this class.

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The average North Korean is in the “wavering” class. But those whose origins and background are linked to ancestors who were pro-Japanese or disloyal to the Kim regime are classified as “hostile” – a group also known as “anti-party and anti-revolutionary forces.”

Based on Kim Il Sung’s remarks in 1958, 25 percent of the North Korean population was in the core class, while 55 percent was wavering and 20 percent was hostile.

“All North Koreans know their level of songbun and those who have bad songbun know they won’t live successful lives until the end of their lives,” said Seo Jae-pyong, secretary-general of a Seoul-based organization of North Korean defectors. “It is almost impossible for those in low-level class to grip the power and achieve their goals. They cannot overcome their designated destiny on occupation, promotion and education under their songbun.”

Kim Byung Wook, the first North Korean defector who received a doctorate in North Korean studies in 2011, shared his experience in the North in an interview with a local news outlet. “I couldn’t go to the military and had to go to a college that couldn’t help me to get a great job after graduation because of my low songbun,” he said.

The Elite Defectors

Diplomats largely hail from the “core” class. They are professionally trained in the North from an early age, with their main diplomatic roles being forging relationships with other countries in order to generate foreign currency earnings.

While the job itself may not be easy, why would diplomats – part of a tiny minority of privileged North Koreans who are trusted to travel and even live overseas – defect from a country where they live at the top of the songbun system?

“The North Korean elite is not optimistic about the future of the North,” said Jo Dong-joon, a professor of political science and international relations at Seoul University. “Since the late 1980s, the North Korean elite had already lost confidence due to structural causes.”

Jo said he doesn’t think many former elites are living in the South but he believes that “there would be some senior defectors who unofficially defected to the South and work for some organizations like NIS-affiliated organizations as the South Korean government has been negotiating with them to get their information by providing job opportunities.”

Jo also predicted that high-profile North Koreans might already know the story of Thae Yong Ho, given that he earned a lot of money by publishing a book, “Password of the Third Floor Secretary Room.” Thae is now a member of the South Korean legislature, further raising his profile.

High-Profile Defectors

More than 33,000 North Koreans have defected to the South, according to the South Korean Unification Ministry and local news reports. The ministry does not offer a breakdown by rank but among them, six senior diplomats – whose names have been released – have defected to the South since the early 1990s.

“Some do it for their family (especially children), some fear repression from the regime for one reason or another, and some probably very genuinely learn to detest the North Korean system and prefer to take their chances in a place more free,” said Mason Richey, an associate professor of international politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, in an email interview.

The highest profile defector was Hwang Jang-yop, who served as chairman of the standing committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly in North Korea, and was one of the authors of the regime’s juche  philosophy. Hwang defected to the South in 1997 and worked as a professor at Jeonju University in South Korea before passing away in 2010.

The official reason for Hwang’s defection is that he was sick of the North Korean regime and the gap between Hwang and Kim’s family upon the reality of the juche idea when Kim Il Sung was ruling.

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Thae Yong Ho defected in 2016. Thae had been deputy ambassador to London and since arriving in the South he has been an outspoken critic of the North. In April, he was elected as a lawmaker with the conservative opposition. Thae actually had close relationships to the ultra-elite, having appeared in the public with Kim Jong Chul, Kim Jong Un’s brother, when the latter visited London, where he attended an Eric Clapton concert and visited guitar shops.

North Korean defectors living in London told reporters that Thae was having financial difficulties, implying that was the main reason for his defection. At his first press conference in South Korea, however, Thae said he “realized the superiority of the liberal democratic system abroad and witnessed South Korea’s economic development and democratization, and knew that the North Korean regime had no future.”

Once high-profile North Korean politicians or diplomats defect to the South, they usually get job opportunities working in NIS-affiliated organizations. Hwang once worked for the NIS-affiliated Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul. And some who had defected to the South seeking protection from the NIS would probably work for such organizations, according to Professor Jo.

Jo, the acting ambassador from the Italian embassy, hails from an elite family of orthodox diplomats. His father and father-in-law both served as ambassadors, according to South Korean news reports – the former as ambassador to Congo and Togo and the latter as ambassador to Thailand and consul general to Hong Kong.

Kims in Exile

Surprisingly, a few members of the ruling Kim family itself have left North Korea for other countries. Kim Jong Nam, the first son of Kim Jong Il and the half brother of Kim Jong Un, left the country for reasons that are still not entirely clear, but appear to have involved some contention with his brother, though he professed to have no interest in political power. He was assassinated in 2017 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia by persons with links to the North Korean authorities.

Kim Han Sol, Kim Jong Nam’s eldest son, has been in hiding since his father’s death. As mentioned earlier, he is believed to be linked to Free Joseon.

Ko Yong Suk, 64, an aunt of Kim Jong Un, has lived in the United States with her husband and her three children since 1998. Ko defected from Switzerland to the U.S. with her husband in 1998 after they realized they might not be needed by the regime. According to the Washington Post in 2016, Ko runs a dry-cleaning store.

North Korea experts say that the main reason for Kim’s family members to defect is North Korea’s de facto monarchy – which, ironically, can be dangerous to any family member who is not currently on the throne.

Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, told Asia Times that Kim Il Sung had relied heavily on the former Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin’s leadership style in building his political system.

“On paper, North Korea is a socialist country but actually it isn’t. Kim Il Sung’s dynasty was built based on Stalin and he was more stalinistic than Joseph Stalin himself,” Lankov said.

Before Stalin died in 1953, he saw perceived attacks by the people around him, especially loyal people. That is why Kim Il Sung created a stronger Stalin-style political system, hoping to avoid a similar fate, according to Lankov.

Kim Jong Un seems to have carried on this family tradition of paranoia. Jang Song Thaek, who was a trusty aide of Kim Jong Il, was executed by his nephew, Kim Jong Un, in 2013. The radical dictatorship and autocratic political system built by Kim’s grandfather will not countenance any division or sharing of power. Under North Korea’s Stalinist model, even fellow elites are not safe.