North Korea has an awful public relations problem that transcends mundane questions like how to explain away human rights violations, public executions, forced abortion, torture and all that. They’ve heard that stuff before, many, many times, and have no problem dealing with it. Outraged denials, charges of evil fabrication, accusations of besmirching “the dignity” of leader Kim Jong Un – those are boilerplate responses that statement writers in Pyongyang muster automatically.
What do you do, however, about a senior diplomat who goes missing from one of your most important foreign embassies and turns up in South Korea with his wife and two sons? Okay, the writers at the Korean Central News Agency, after a day or two’s hesitation while leader Kim Jong Un was absorbing this latest embarrassment, came up with the usual denigration of the man as “human scum,” guilty of charges concocted to portray him as a low-life criminal. Embezzlement and raping minors led the list.
But that tirade was designed only for eyes and ears outside North Korea to know that Thae Yong Ho – who held the number two position at the London embassy and regularly extolled the advantages of life in Pyongyang – was really a rotten egg. Nor were the Brits exempt from blame for his great escape. The same shrill blast accused Perfidious Albion of failing to do its duty and extradite him back to North Korea as demanded an accused felon who had to pay for his crimes.
Fine, but South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, which presumably had a central role in getting him to defect and bringing him to Seoul, says there’s not a shred of truth to rumors that he made off with a few tens of millions of dollars of North Korea’s hard-earned cash. He had, says the NIS, no access to such funds, but the greater truth is that your typical North Korean viewer and reader has yet to be told anything about anything. The North Korean media that purveys all the news that’s fit to print about the agenda of the regime isn’t talking about Thae’s defection. This saga of betrayal is not one that Kim Jong Un wants his own people to know.
The North Korean media that purveys all the news that’s fit to print about the agenda of the regime isn’t talking about Thae’s defection
There’s a reason for that. Thae’s defection, and those of a number of other North Korean officials overseas, “are significant,” says Stephan Haggard, professor and prolific author of books and studies on North Korea. “They are carrying money that’s badly needed.”
So worried are Kim Jong Un and his advisers at the all-powerful Organization and Guide Department, which controls just about everything in North Korea, and Bureau 39, responsible for North Korea’s nefarious money-making activities overseas, that they’re afraid the defections are undermining the stability of the regime.
The fear is that letting people know that North Koreans who are trusted enough to go overseas would think of defecting like so many thousands of impoverished people, mostly in the far northeast along the Tumen River border with China, is more than an embarrassment. It’s a disgrace that raises the question of who’s behind them and who in North Korea support them.
“Diplomats in themselves are not important,” says Haggard, head of the Korean studies program at the University of California, San Diego, but he asks, “What are their connections in the Organization and Guidance Department?”
The secrecy inside North Korea that shrouds Thae’s defection contrasts with the vast publicity given the flight in April of 13 North Korean workers, 12 women and their manager
That’s a question that Kim Jong Un needs answered while conducting a purge among the elite whom he counts on to buttress his power. He may not afford to order too many executions for fear of killing those who might be totally loyal to him, but if he’s to survive he’s got to weed out insidious forces at home as revealed by high-level defections overseas.
The secrecy inside North Korea that shrouds Thae’s defection contrasts with the vast publicity given the flight in April of 13 North Korean workers, 12 women and their manager, from a North Korean restaurant in China. The difference was they were not stealing huge sums, they were not senior officials, and their families could appear on television tearfully wailing for their return while North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department cooked up a yarn about South Korea’s multi-tentacle National Intelligence Service having kidnapped them.
Clearly Thae’s defection, the highest level since that of North Korea’s ambassador to Egypt in 1997, had much more frightening implications.
Shortly after South Korea’s unification ministry revealed he’d arrived in Seoul with his family, rumors spread of the defection weeks earlier of another North Korean official said to have gone into hiding with his sons after making off with several hundred million dollars. The NIS denied that one too, though they’d like to know the source of the rumor as reported by Dong A Ilbo, a leading newspaper. The story, attributed only to “a source,” had the defector in charge of North Korea’s money dealings in Europe — a role that would theoretically have given him access to Kim Jong Un’s Swiss bank accounts, brimming with billions accumulated during the era of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, founder of the Kim dynasty, and his father, Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011.
Latest reports have it that several other North Korean officials have gone missing around the world. Some of them may have escaped with their families while others sacrificed the loved ones who had to stay at home. How do you explain all that to hungry people, most of whom are scrounging for tomorrow’s scant food rations? The answer is simple: you don’t. Rather, you maintain silence and secrecy.
As retribution, however, Kim Jong Un is reportedly ordering the return of all family members of North Koreans officials, holding them as hostages for execution if their husbands forsake the regime. Seoul is also warning of revenge killings of South Koreans traveling in China by North Korean gangsters under orders from the regime. South Korean visitors to the Chinese side of sacred Mount Paektu, on the China-North Korean border, are down 50 percent from a summer seasonal average of 3,000 a day.
Severe economic problems are believed to account not only for the defections but also for the regime’s alarm. “Their diplomats are all under pressure to get money,” as Haggard observes, while at home “the center is scrambling for dollars.” North Korea has basically ceased manufacturing much of anything while making whatever it can from exporting coal and other raw materials, mostly to China, sometimes in violation of UN sanctions that China is hardly enforcing.
Economic hardship is what’s driven most of the 30,000 North Korean defectors now in South Korea, the majority women. Defections have been down lately amid increasing obstacles imposed by extra guards and fencing along the Tumen and Yalu River borders with China, but they are up for the first time this year since Kim Jong Un took power. From China they go by circuitous routes to Southeast Asia or Mongolia on the way to freedom, risking capture all the way by Chinese police who normally send them back as prisoners to North Korea.
In a different way, economic issues also explain why diplomats overseas are defecting.
The Chinese may be oblivious to UN sanctions while restoring close ties with their North Korean protectorate amid anger over THAAD, the U.S.-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense batteries that South Korea has agreed to install, but other countries are observing sanctions. As a result, North Korean diplomats find it difficult to make money as demanded by their bosses in Pyongyang. Forced into illegal activities, they get into trouble around the world for such sins as smuggling liquor into Pakistan and cigarettes into Bangladesh, dealing in illicit cash in Germany and Vietnam and selling rhinoceros horns in South Africa.
Increasingly, North Korean diplomats find it difficult to make money as demanded by their bosses in Pyongyang
Similarly, Thae obviously had reasons not to want to return to Pyongyang as ordered this summer. He and his wife, Oh Sun-hae, and their sons had become accustomed to the good life overseas for the past two decades – aided and abetted stealing millions for which he would have faced trial, torture and probable execution despite their background as the progeny of heroic revolutionary families.
Not surprisingly, Thae, Mr. and Ms., had little trouble adjusting to the style of rich South Koreans returning home from lengthy tours overseas.
After engineering their defection through British and American intelligence, they reportedly insisted on last-minute shopping for high-priced food tins and luxury goodies in London as they were being escorted to a British Royal Air Force aircraft for the flight to Germany, where they boarded an American military plane bound for South Korea. Along with mounds of luggage, Thae arrived with his beloved golf clubs and Madame with her tennis rackets – symbols of their impending welcome to the ranks of South Korea’s elite.
Main picture: E. Lafforgue
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