How N.Korea Holds Diplomats' Children Hostage

  • By Chosun Ilbo Columnist Ahn Yong-hyun

    October 08, 2020 13:36

    The biggest concern of North Korean diplomats being assigned overseas is often whether their children will be accompanying them. North Korea's Foreign Ministry staff are said to weep during each reassignment season because they often have to leave one of their children behind as "security" to prevent any attempt at defection. Even twins are separated to secure a hostage. When North Korean nation founder Kim Il-sung was leader, the North's diplomats willingly entrusted their children to the care of an elite party school in Pyongyang, but the days of such blind loyalty ended with the devastating famine of the 1990s. Rim Ju-song, North Korea's first Paralympic swimmer who competed in London in 2012, is said to be the child of a diplomat. He was left alone in Pyongyang in childhood and lost an arm and a leg in an accident.

    Around a dozen North Korean diplomats have defected to South Korea. Many decided to defect out of concern over their children. Thae Yong-ho, the senior North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea in 2016 and is now a lawmaker, wrote in his autobiography that he fled the North seeking to "break the chains of slavery" binding his children and to help them "find their dreams." Another North Korean diplomat fled when his child, who had gotten a taste of K-pop and freedom, walked into a South Korean diplomatic mission. A former North Korean diplomat said, "There were colleagues who bribed officials to produce fake medical papers, taking advantage of regulations allowing children to accompany them overseas if they are gravely ill."

    A North Korean diplomat based in China reportedly asked an acquaintance to get him a large-capacity storage battery. Asked why, he said he needed it because his son was studying to enter a prestigious foreign language high school in Pyongyang and wanted to power his desk lamp during the frequent blackouts there. Graduates from the prestigious school get a leg up in becoming diplomats or trade officials who are posted overseas. That virtually guarantees wealth and professional success, so "competition is extremely fierce" according to the diplomat.

    Jo Song-gil, the former chargé d'affaires at the North Korean Embassy in Rome, and his wife disappeared in the Italian capital in November of 2018. Now we are told that they arrived in South Korea in July last year but were unable to bring their daughter with them. At the time, the Italian government said the daughter had been sent back to North Korea after the couple disappeared. Their plans to escape with her must have failed. Jo probably asked our government here to keep his defection a secret because he feared for his daughter's safety. Thae, who is an old school friend of Jo's, said North Korea could harshly punish his daughter.

    The practice of holding a diplomat's children hostage is reminiscent of the Sippenhaft practiced by the worst dictatorships of the last century, and no other country now needs to use such threats to keep its officials from defecting. Jo and his wife must be living in agony now their cover has been blown.

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