North Korea - South Korea

North Korea embarrassed by diplomats', caterers' defections

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the newly-built combined fishing-tackle factory under the Korean People's Army (KPA), in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, July 30, 2016.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the newly-built combined fishing-tackle factory under the Korean People's Army (KPA), in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, July 30, 2016. KCNA/ via REUTERS

South Korea's Unification Ministry has announced that North Korea's deputy ambassador to Britain, Thea Yong-Ho, had defected to Seoul along with his family. Meanwhile South Korean security services released 12 North Korean waitresses after screening. They had defected after working in a North Korean-run restaurant in China.

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There are about 30,000 North Korean defectors currently living in the South.

But high-level defections are rare, so the defection of the vice-ambassador may be a major blow to Pyongyang.

Thea Yong-Ho “was living in London for almost 10 years. And from London he came over to South Korea recently,” says Noh Jungsun, a retired professor from Yonsei University who has worked with the south's govnerment to reunify the country.

“He said he was frustrated about North Korea's political situation. He didn't like what he saw in North Korea in terms of political indoctrination of the people in North Korea. And he was concerned about many political leaders in North Korea that were excommunicated and sent to labour camps.”

Defections relatively rare

Some analysts are surprised about the relatively low number of defections.

“You wonder why it doesn't happen more often,” says Pyongyang-watcher Aidan Foster-Carter.

“North Korean diplomats abroad know what it is to live outside the country. This particular gentlemen, whom I met along the way, is very urbane. These are intelligent people under a tough regime.

“They must compare their lives at home with what is possible elsewhere. But they know that it is incredibly risky. Family members left behind will certainly be punished. He has his immediate family with him and I am glad of that. And it may be that people like him are thinking about the long-term future of the regime as well."

The fact that Thae managed to defect with his whole family is exceptional.

“Usually not all the members of the family arrive in South Korea all together,” says Noh Jungsun.

He didn't like what he saw in North Korea

North Korean defectors

“That is very rare out of 30,000 defectors living in South Korea. All of [Thea’s family members] came from the United Kingdom and came to Korea via a very fast route."

Catering workers defect

Meanwhile the South Korean security services released 12 North Korean waitresses and a restaurant manager who were working in China.

Increasingly, Pyongyang seems to set up restaurants in neighbouring China, south-east and even Europe.

“North Korea is rather short of money and it doesn't have many goods that are internationally tradable, except for armaments that are frozen by sanctions,” says Foster-Carter. “So over the past 10 years a number of restaurants have opened around the world.”

There are a dozen in China but also in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

“The first European restaurant was opened in 2012 in Osdorp, the Netherlands, but closed after disagreement between the Dutch managers and Pyongyang," Foster-Carter reports.

The restaurants serve North Korean food, the waitresses are dressed in traditional dress and sing patriotic songs, “so it was an exotic experience for people and it earns money for the regime.”

Although there is no transparency in the restaurant’s finances, one defector told Noh Jungsun that they make up to 14 million US dollars per year.

“The restaurants were ordered to generate income that was often impossibly high and the spending pattern of personnel was being checked,” says Noh Jungsun.

That made defection to South Korea an attractive option.

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