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High-profile North Korean diplomat defects to South Korea

High-profile North Korean diplomat defects to South Korea
This is an image from video taken on April 5, 2004 of Thae Yong Ho, a North Korean diplomat, speaking during an interview in Pyongyang. (Associated Press)

Since being dispatched from North Korea to London as a foreign service officer, Thae Yong Ho had developed some very un-North Korean tastes, friends say. He enjoyed playing tennis and dining on Indian curry, activities only available to a tiny elite in North Korea, one of the world's most isolated countries.

Despite growing comfortable with his posting to North Korea's embassy in suburban London, Thae chose to leave that life behind and defect with his wife and children to South Korea, in what could be one of the highest-profile defections in years, South Korean authorities said.

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The South Korean news media have been abuzz this week with speculation over a possible defection by Thae after the JoongAng Daily newspaper reported Tuesday that a high-ranking North Korean diplomat working in the United Kingdom had sought asylum in another country.

An official from South Korea's Ministry of Unification, its body for relations with North Korea, said by phone Wednesday that Thae had arrived in South Korea and is in state custody with his wife and children. The official declined to specify the date of Thae's arrival and spoke on condition of anonymity, citing ministry rules.

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The news of Thae's arrival in South Korea comes one day after the South Korean government announced that 13 North Korean restaurant workers who defected in April from China as a group had been released from state custody after lengthy rounds of questioning.

They had been working at one of the many restaurants North Korea operates abroad, mostly in Asia, where young waitresses in traditional attire serve traditional North Korean food and drinks, while providing musical entertainment.

Shortly before the group's defection, the South Korean government had called on its citizens traveling abroad to avoid North Korean restaurants, saying the money they spent there went to funding North Korea's weapons programs. Seoul then claimed that the restaurant workers had defected because they were under pressure to send more money back to North Korea, even as business was slumping with fewer South Korean customers.

The restaurants are a source of sorely needed foreign currency for the North Korean state, which is cut off from most kinds of international commerce by an increasingly tight set of economic sanctions. The United Nations has enacted multiple sets of sanctions meant to sever North Korea's links to international trade and finance networks as punishment for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

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These higher-profile defections have taken place alongside a general rise in the number of North Koreans making it to South Korea. The first half of this year saw the first increase in the number of defections since 2011, when Kim Jong Un took power, according to South Korean government data.

Although more than 1,000 North Koreans arrive in the South every year and a total of more than 29,000 are registered here, defections by overseas diplomats and government officials are rare. The most high-profile case came in 1997 when Hwang Jang Yop, a close associate of founding leader Kim Il Sung, defected to the South.

Despite being from North Korea's privileged elite, Thae won't be a treasure-trove of information for the South Korean intelligence agents who will interrogate him, said Michael Madden, editor of the website North Korea Leadership Watch and a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. "This man has lived outside the DPRK for 10 years, so his current knowledge about internal politics and domestic affairs is not extensive," said Madden, using the acronym for North Korea's formal name.

Madden didn't expect much reaction from the North Korean state to Thae's defection. "If there is an immediate response, it will be along the lines of accusing someone of kidnapping this man and demanding his return, or conversely implicit reference in state media to traitors or enemies of the leadership," Madden wrote in an email.

Thae had last drawn attention when he was spotted last year in London attending an Eric Clapton concert with Kim Jong Chul, older brother of Kim Jong Un.

Thae was also a conduit for British journalists seeking visas to report from North Korea. Steve Evans, the BBC's Seoul correspondent, who is acquainted with Thae, wrote on Wednesday that Thae was scheduled to return to Pyongyang this summer, and wondered whether Thae may have feared retribution upon his return for his role in arranging the trips of BBC reporters who covered the Workers' Party Congress in Pyongyang in May.

BBC reporter Rupert Wingfield-Hayes was detained and interrogated for 10 hours before being expelled from North Korea after angering his hosts with reports in which he described Kim Jong Un as "corpulent and unpredictable."

Evans said he would regularly meet with Thae when he took trips back to London, and found Thae to be well adjusted to life there, writing, "He seemed so British. He seemed so at home."

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He still found Thae's defection a surprise, writing that despite his fondness for life in Britain, Thae always seemed committed to North Korea. "He had never given any hint of disloyalty to the regime, not a flicker of doubt," Evans wrote.

Special correspondent Borowiec reported from Seoul and Times staff writer Makinen from Beijing. 

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UPDATES:

7:37 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with Times reporting.

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This article was originally published at 3:45 a.m.

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