Sanctions-squeezed N. Korea witnesses exodus of the elite

August 18, 2016

SEOUL, Aug. 17 (Yonhap) — Squeezed with the harshest-ever international sanctions, North Korea is witnessing an unprecedented increase in the number of the country’s elites abandoning their homeland, with the latest defection by a London-based diplomat highlighting the difficulties it is facing, officials and experts here said Wednesday.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry announced that Thae Yong-ho, a minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, and his family are currently under the South Korean government’s protection after leaving his post in the British capital.

The ministry’s spokesman Jeong Joon-hee explained that the reason behind the unusual, high-level diplomat’s defection was his “disillusionment” with the North Korean Kim Jong-un regime and aspirations for freedom.

“This case shows that North Korean elites are feeling there is no hope for their country,” the spokesman said. “It also indicates that North Korea’s regime’s internal solidarity is weakening.”

The North Korean career diplomat is one of highest-ranking foreign service officers who have sought asylum in South Korea. As a minister, he was No. 2 man at the North Korean mission in London.



Thae’s defection is loaded with signs of growing agitation and discontent among North Korea’s ruling class, given that he was among the privileged few in the impoverished communist country, experts familiar with internal North Korean affairs said.

The 55-year-old diplomat was one of North Korea’s point men on Western Europe, having been educated in China during high school. Overseas study is allowed to only a select group in the country of those who are very close to the leadership through their family backgrounds. After earning a bachelor’s degree in Pyongyang, he also went to Denmark to continue studying, according to former North Korean diplomats now in South Korea.

His stay in London spanned nearly 10 years, during which he has been actively engaged in a campaign to promote North Korea’s national image against the backdrop of growing international pressure in the wake of North Korea’s relentless nuclear program.

Thae’s defection also comes amid increasing talk in South Korea about signs of a possible exodus by privileged North Koreans who are feeling the squeeze of international sanctions.

In March, the United Nations Security Council adopted a new punitive resolution on North Korea in reaction to the communist country’s fourth nuclear test in January and a long-range rocket launch the following month. The North is prohibited by previous UNSC resolutions from conducting nuclear or ballistic missile tests.

Banning exports of mineral resources, jet fuel or other strategically import materials to North Korea, the latest resolution is viewed as putting considerable pressure on the country. Individual sanctions have been adopted by countries like South Korea, the U.S. and the European Union that are further hurting the country.

Reflecting this, a group of 13 North Korean employees posted at a North Korean state-run restaurant in Ningbo, China, defected to South Korea en masse in April. In June, three more North Korean restaurant employees working in China escaped to Seoul.

The group defection cases were the first that signaled rising discontent permeating in the country.

People who work in overseas restaurants are from relatively well-to-do families and deemed loyal to the state.

A North Korean senior colonel was also confirmed in April to have defected to South Korea in 2015. He was known to have been at the North’s reconnaissance bureau tasked with carrying out espionage missions against the South.

Experts pointed out that North Korea is experiencing a steady number of defections by upper-echelon members of society that could lead to social disintegration.

Citing results of interviews with North Korean defectors, Yoon Yeo-sang, director of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, said “the ratio of North Korean defectors who say they were upper-middle or upper class back home has been increasing since several years ago.”

With recent desertion cases involving well-to-do citizens, the ratio has risen even more lately, Yoon said, without disclosing exact data.

In the past, the yearly number of defections by North Korean overseas workers stood at only one or two, he said, adding that the recent sharp increase appears to have come in the aftermath of sanctions slapped on North Korea.

An estimated 815 North Koreans defected to South Korea in the first seven months of this year, up 15.6 percent from the same period last year, the unification ministry has said.

The seven-month figure marks a turnaround in the number of North Korean defectors, which had been shrinking since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un came to power in late 2011.

In the face of new U.S. sanctions against North Korea’s human rights violations, which specifically targeted leader Kim Jong-un, Thae must have felt ever more inner conflict in his position to promote North Korea, Cheong Seong-chang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute said.

“In London, he may have been exposed to frequent criticism from Western countries … and that might have spawned psychological conflicts,” the researcher said.


  1. Younghyun Kim

    August 21, 2016 at 1:38 AM

    This weak world worldling welcomes his asylum, fled or escaped from this world’s most heinous and tyrannical or despotic military regime, North Korea, we are aware, there are still a lot of those rogues’ wasted and unimaginable and disunderstandable and unforgivable human atrocities happening in the land of death and freezed territory.

    Who on earth can understand the barbaric and flagrant communist regime whose foolish and inane leaderships + vapid and absurd dictatorship + never-unforgivable subhuman deeds, such as extraordianry judgements and unconditional or merciless killings against your poor northern people + anti-humanitarianism or human rights abuses + . . ., and a countless number of inhumane criminal acts against humanity in connection with their relentless provocative acts + nuke develpoments + firing a long-ranged missiles + sending their espoinages/spies to a free society, South Korea + plotting to communize and topple the South Korea whole, . . ., and so on?

    A good defector will dedicate himself to help their poor compatriots enjoy the sense of freedom and democracy to the fullest, and also, he or she will do his best to do research on the how to be a matured and united nation most of your korean people would hope to. Foremore, he or she and those all must let the whole countries know that Kim Jongun and his blind group loyal to our era’s so-called unprecedented dictator and tyrant whose its whole life aims to destroy this world and fulfill his greed + crave for power, mock at your south koreans, underrate your the Republic of Korea, . . ., and so on, won’t forsake their privileges that can resign over the people with iron fist and also, never will those terror group give up going on to keep their power with an amount of slush funds.

    This weak and mere low-educated world worldling hopes to have Mr. Thae contribute to the unification between South and North Korea, and if so be possible, must-be/could spend your strenuous efforts and energy on rescuing your poor northern people, particularly, over 200.000′s north korean political prisoners. Good luck to this solitary korean peninsula!

    2016. 08.21. in Suwon, Seoul and at Dokdo Island at East Sea.

  2. Younghyun Kim

    August 21, 2016 at 2:07 AM

    I’m sorry to make a spelling mistake. So, needed to correct its misspelled words, Espoinages into “Espionages” since checked out its whole sentences. Its same spelling mistake reminds this uneducated world worldling of a shameful/bashful tyro of the English language who must dedicate himself to his studies to become a good learner and master/acquire that same difficult global language, the English language. Please you do make it out and go together to have a command of the international language.(Because this uneducated world worldling wants to be a frontrunner for your South Korea’s life-long education + learning.

    2016. 08. 21. in front of/ahead of KNOC(Korea National Open University, where situationed at Haehwa dong, a Seoul district)