Senior North Korean Defector Says His Sons Were Reason He Fled

January 25, 2017 Updated: January 25, 2017

SEOUL, South Korea—The highest-level North Korean diplomat to defect to South Korea said Wednesday he decided to flee last year because he didn’t want his children to live “miserable” lives in the North.

Thae Yong Ho, a former minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, told reporters that he was lucky to have been able to bring both of his sons to London, unlike other North Korean diplomats who are forced to leave some of their children at home as “hostages.”

After his sons, now 20 and 27, learned about life in Britain, they began asking him questions such as why North Korea barred use of the internet and executed people without proper legal procedures, he said.

Their British friends at school made fun of them over the nature of their homeland, he said. For instance, when they grew long hair, their friends laughed and asked whether they could be arrested in North Korea because they had heard all young men were required to have short haircuts.

“These kinds of questions bombarded my sons,” Thae said.

Thae, who said as a diplomat abroad he had the privilege of access to outside information, said he decided to talk frankly with them about North Korea. He concluded that his sons would have “miserable” lives if they returned home because they had come to know the truth about the country.

Ahead of their defection to South Korea, Thae said he told his sons that he was going to “cut the chains of slavery and you are free men.”

He said his sons are happy and are “now feeling a true sense of freedom” in South Korea.

Former North Korean deputy ambassador to the UK, Thae Yong Ho (C) at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club in Seoul, South Korea on Jan. 25, 2017. (Ed Jones, Pool Photo via AP)
Former North Korean deputy ambassador to the UK, Thae Yong Ho (C) at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club in Seoul, South Korea on Jan. 25, 2017. (Ed Jones, Pool Photo via AP)

Thae said his disappointment with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was another reason he defected. He said he initially had some hopes for Kim but eventually fell into “despair” after watching him execute officials without proper reasons and pursue development of nuclear weapons.

Kim, believed to be in his early 30s, took office in late 2011 following his dictator father’s death. He has since orchestrated a series of high-profile executions, purges and dismissals in what outside analysts say is an attempt to bolster his grip on power. Kim’s pursuit of nuclear weapons has drawn tough international sanctions.

Since his release into society last month following months of custody by South Korea’s intelligence agency, Thae has conducted a series of media interviews and appeared on various TV programs in what he says is an attempt to reveal the truth about North Korea.

Thae described himself as a big fan of South Korean dramas and other TV programs while serving in London, and said ordinary citizens in North Korea also enjoy watching them secretly at home. He said if North Koreans are able to obtain more information about their country’s situation, it could trigger a public uprising against Kim’s government.

Thae, reportedly under a police protection program, said he doesn’t worry about any possible attempts by North Korean agents to kill him. “I am quite confident that without sacrifice by any individual or any group … reunification or the elimination of the Kim Jong Un regime cannot be achieved,” he said.

Thae is the most senior North Korean diplomat to defect to South Korea. In 1997, the North Korean ambassador to Egypt fled but resettled in the United States.

North Korea has called Thae “human scum” and accused him of embezzling government money and committing other crimes.