North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-Ho wore many hats while working in London. He not only engaged in diplomacy but became active in propaganda and PR campaigns for the North Korean regime. Monitoring defectors and human rights activists was also part of his job. His role conveniently included surveillance of embassy staff, who usually end up squatting in close quarters to save on living expenses. He was the watcher who kept tabs on everyone. His escape may have been made possible by the special role he played as well as the prominence of his wife’s family — while living abroad for 10 years, Thae was able to keep his family together, thus being in a position to defect.
In our last article, we focused on Thae Yong-Ho’s encyclopedic knowledge of South Korean pop culture. However, more serious things came to light during his 2.5-hour interview with South Korean reporters (foreign reporters were not allowed). It’s already been 5 days since he was introduced to the public on December 27, in the briefing room of the massive Government Complex across from Gwanghwa-mun in Seoul’s city-center. We will discuss in this piece what many Western and Korean presses have missed about Thae’s defection — how was he able to defect and what his exact role was at the North Korean embassy in London.
First, was he the highest ranking North Korean diplomat to defect? The answer is no. In 1997, North Korea’s ambassador to Egypt, Jang Seung-Gil, defected to the U.S. There may be some similarity in the manner in which Jang and Thae fled: both had worries about the future of their children. In Jang’s case, his second son, Jang Cheol-Min, was attending British school for foreigners in Cairo when he started going out with a Filipina classmate. The elder Jang did not approve of the relationship but his son soon disappeared and a year later, Jang and his family defected to the U.S. Not very much is known about the circumstances surrounding their defection and how they have been faring since. But it is acknowledged that the Jangs walked into the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the CIA was involved in facilitating their exit out of Egypt, one of the few countries that has diplomatic relations with North Korea. It is generally understood that Jang defected to ensure a better future for his family.
North Korea's ambassador to Egypt, Jang Seung-Gil, defected in 1997, 1 year after his son disappeared.
Therefore, some South Koreans call Thae’s move an “immigration-style” defection similar to how some South Koreans immigrate to countries like the U.S. and Canada to provide for their children. The Thaes have two sons: the elder son (27) may be working in some capacity in public health at London’s Hammersmith Hospital, a renowned teaching hospital for those in medical research; the second son will be attending Imperial College London to study math and computer science. The second son (19) even has hopes of representing South Korea in the Math Olympiad, an international competition for math whizzes under 20. He is apparently that bright. Upon leaving North Korea’s embassy compound, Thae purportedly told his sons, “At this moment, you have been unchained from a life of slavery. You can live freely now.”
Thae was not North Korea’s ambassador to the U.K. That post was held by Hyon Hak-Bong (현학봉), who is being recalled to North Korea. There are fears that Hyon may be punished to take responsibility for Thae. One can imagine he may be held responsible in some way. In fact, South Korean news outlets reported that he has been replaced and a Western outlet reported he could be sent to a concentration camp. Plus Hyon was supposedly close to Jang Seong-Taek, whose associates were executed in 2013; he somehow survived that purge. However, Hyon had already served 5 years as ambassador in London, starting in December 2011, which is usually the maximum extended to those working abroad; it’s time for him to go home anyway. Thae, who spent 10 consecutive years in London, happened to be an exception to the rule. So it’s not so clear if Hyon has to take responsibility for Thae’s defection. As we shall see, it’s not like there is a clear chain of command at the embassy and whether Thae had to even report to Hyon.
Kim Joo-Il is a former North Korean army captain who defected in 2005. He resides in Surrey, U.K., and founded a group called the North Korean Association for Human rights and Democracy in 2013. Based in London, Kim is the secretary-general of the organization. Kim discloses that Thae’s role was not only to do propaganda work but engage in surveillance of North Korean defectors in London. In particular, his job was to monitor defectors who become human rights activists and even take countermeasures to thwart those efforts. In other words, Thae was a representative of the Workers’ Party of North Korea (WPK), a “party secretary (당비서)” who was responsible for the continued allegiance to North Korea of those working at the embassy. Kim describes Thae as a “cellular unit” of the WPK, who wielded real power at the embassy: “For those working at the embassy, a party representative is much more powerful and they have to make sure they are in good standing with him. The ambassador [Hyon] is merely an administrative head. Given North Korea’s power structure, the real power at the embassy was being wielded by Thae.” [Emphases added.]
Kim Joo-Il explains that Thae was a "cellular unit" of the WPK -- Thae was the one who really ran the NK embassy in London.
This probably explains how Thae was able to escape. He was the watcher. But was there anyone watching the watcher? North Korea’s vaunted system of surveillance makes sure that everyone is watched and every watcher has his watcher. That way, everyone is on their toes. According to Thae, however, this works when there are 100 or so people abroad — then, the state security apparatus will send full-time monitors to make sure they are in line and being good North Korean citizens. However, there aren’t enough resources to send monitors when less than 10 people are working abroad. In those situations, “a diplomat wears multiple hats, acts as party secretary / security official and reports anything untoward to the state security department. However, this is a human situation, so you can’t report everything that goes on in living quarters to state security. You let some things pass.” Then he added, “Everyone acts opportunistically. Everyone goes through the motions as if they’re in a set piece.”
That came straight out of Thae’s mouth during the briefing. We reported before how North Korean diplomats have to subsist on a salary of about $39,000. They make do by spending as much time as possible at the embassy and turning it into communal living quarters. However, the most important point being made by Thae is that his job is not just limited to diplomacy and propaganda work but keeping tabs on defectors abroad and reporting on embassy staff, including the ambassador.
We see this time after time in North Korean organizations: “stove-piped chains of command,” as Robert Collins puts it, designed to prevent a single person or entity from becoming too powerful. Along with the surveillance state imposed by state security, this unusual command structure is one of North Korea’s coup-proofing mechanisms. Thae, therefore, had to wear 3-4 hats. But this doesn’t include raising hard currency for Kim Jong-Un, which may North Korean diplomats have to engage in.
There were some reporters listening who did not fully grasp what Thae said. They probably still think there is a clear hierarchy and #2 has to report to #1, just like in civilian chains of command. When Thae defected, there were 3 other diplomats working at the embassy. Other workers devoted to economic and export affairs are not known to be full-time denizens at embassy compounds; they tend to visit and then leave. When reports of Thae’s defection surfaced in August 2016, some believed he was in charge of Kim Jong-Un’s funds being channeled to the KWP’s Bureau 39. Another rumor was that he was being pressured to bribe British officers to come up with classified information regarding the submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) technology. If true, this would reveal another hat he had to wear – that of espionage. However, Thae called that a “half truth” in an interview conducted 1 week after the briefing: “North Korea is definitely interested in military secrets and the U.K. is one of the few countries with nuclear submarines … [Y]ou could get a medal if you try and succeed but you’re not gonna be punished if you don’t. I never even tried. MI5 is no joke! [Laughs].”
So it’s clear that some aspects of Thae’s defection have been greatly exaggerated. However, this much is very clear at this point: Thae himself was the watcher and was trusted by the party and state security. He was trusted enough to accompany Kim Jong-Chol, the older brother of Kim Jong-Un, to an Eric Clapton concert in London. Thae was his chaperone and may have even reported his impression of him to security.
2 pop culture buffs (Thae and Kim Jong-Un's older brother) meet in London to watch Eric Clapton perform live.
But was that trust mainly due to his glib propaganda work or because North Korea was shorthanded? Thae raised his 2 sons while working in London for 10 years, an unheard of length of time for a North Korean diplomat, which is usually limited to 5-year tours of duty. As a result, his first son is considerably aged at 27 — usually one is left behind to deter parents from fleeing. His second son was born in Denmark and mostly received Western schooling. How was he able to extend his foreign tour for so long and with all his family members to boot? This is really the most important factor which put Thae and his family in a position to defect. It probably has to do with the well-connected bloodline of Thae’s wife. In fact, the family of his wife wields far more clout than Thae’s own and it goes all the way back to comradeship with Kim Il-Sung in the 1940s. We will discuss this in our next piece on Thae, as this is another under-reported aspect of his defection which gets short shrift.
* * * * * * * * *
Thae will be working at the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS), which is run by the National Intelligence Service (NIS), South Korea’s CIA. He will work alongside Ko Young-Hwan, another former North Korean diplomat who defected from Congo to South Korea in 1991. He will, however, not do full-time research with the INSS; he will do consulting and advisory work. Thae explained the consulting gig allows him freedom to engage in anti-Kim Jong-Un activism and work with defector organizations. So we will be seeing a lot more of Thae. Like his coworker, Ko, Thae will become a fixture on the South Korean news circuit, as he is articulate and telegenic.
Another former NK diplomat, Ko Young-Hwan, regularly appears on Chanel A, where undoubtedly Thae will appear.