Diplomat’s defection poses major PR problem for North Korea

Published 9:59 am Thursday, August 18, 2016

TOKYO — The defection of a North Korean senior diplomat in London poses a major problem for Pyongyang on a number of fronts — not least of which is how to publicly respond.

As of Thursday, Pyongyang hadn’t made a public statement about the defection. But when — or if — it does, its response will likely be ferocious and accusatory.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry announced Wednesday that Thae Yong Ho, minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, has arrived in South Korea with his family and is under the protection of the South Korean government. Thae was the second-highest official in North Korea’s embassy and is the most senior North Korean diplomat to defect to the South.

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Seoul, which doesn’t always divulge defections, was quick to seize on this one as evidence of growing dissent within the North’s ruling elite.

Its Unification Ministry claimed Thae defected because of his disgust with the Kim Jong Un regime and worries about the future of his children. A spokesman for the ministry further said that the defection is a sign of weakening unity within the North’s ruling class.

Extrapolations about the bigger significance of individual defections should be taken with a grain of salt.

Seoul and Pyongyang have strong political and propaganda motivations for the way they handle announcements about defections. Analysts generally agree there are no significant signs Kim Jong Un’s regime is weakening. Moreover, previous defections of officials from the North have by and large been isolated incidents that did not lead to a chain of more choosing to flee.

Thae himself has not yet spoken in public about his motives and details about the context of his defection remain sketchy.

Defectors are referred to by the North in the harshest of terms. “Human scum” is a common epithet, along with “criminals” or “traitors.” Pyongyang often accuses the South of tricking or paying its citizens to defect, or claims that they have simply been kidnapped.