August 18, 2016 09:25
A North Korean diplomat in the U.K. has defected to South Korea, the Unification Ministry said Wednesday.
Thae Yong-ho was the second-ranked official at the diplomatic mission. He is the most senior North Korean diplomat to defect to the South since the ambassador to Egypt, Chang Sung-kil, sought asylum in 1997 and brought with him key information on Pyongyang's missile sales to the Middle East.
Thae's wife defected with him. She is a relative of O Baek-ryong, a former high-ranking official who fought alongside nation founder Kim Il-sung against colonial Japan.
Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee told reporters that Thae has safely arrived in South Korea with his family. "They are now under the government's protection," Jeong said.
Thae is thought to have become disillusioned with the North Korean regime under Kim Jong-un and "aspired to freedom," according to the spokesman.
"This case shows that North Korean elites feel that there is no hope in their country," Jeong added.
The BBC reported that Thae went missing in mid-July with his wife and two sons.
Thae's younger son, who was apparently in Denmark, stopped coming to school last month and the family's telephone and their social media accounts were also closed.
Thae was earlier reported to have sought asylum in a third country but changed his mind and opted to come to South Korea.
A graduate of Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies and sometime student at Beijing Foreign Studies University, he had worked in Europe for more than a decade.
He was appointed minister at the London embassy four years ago. His job was to spread North Korean propaganda in the U.K. and improve his country's image, and he was well known to reporters there as the key contact at the embassy.
He was scheduled to return to Pyongyang this summer after completing his stint in the U.K., which may have hastened his defection.
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