Thae Yong-ho, formerly DPRK Deputy Ambassador in London, finally ended up in Seoul last week at the end of a volatile period for Britain’s relationship with North Korea. The defection came as a shock to the English-speaking world. Thae was well known to London’s community of North Korea watchers and analysts, frequently delivering lectures to leftist groupings in the city and traveling with Ambassador Hyon Hak-bong to the latter’s scheduled engagements.
While he rarely took the stage for formal presentations – like Ambassador Hyon’s September 2015 speech at Chatham House – Thae was understood by the policy community to be a person of significance first by virtue of having been in post for so long, and second thanks to the fact that in DPRK political structures it is the Vice-Minister rather than the Minister who often has greater authority.
Throughout the many column inches devoted to Thae’s decision to desert his post, the former diplomat was described as a “high-profile” North Korean official, and, evidently, this is the case. But being high-profile is not necessarily the same as being high-ranking, and yet some of the discussion of Thae’s flight has conflated the two.
Being high-profile is not necessarily the same as being high-ranking, and yet some of the discussion of Thae’s flight has conflated the two.
When Hwang Jang-yop, who defected in 1997, arrived in Seoul via the Philippines, it was a far more significant event, and comparisons between the two should carry no weight. Hwang had shared column inches, podium space, and front pages of the Rodong Sinmun with both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il over the decades. He was both from and of the center. Thae is neither; the son of an elite family and a successful man, but symbolically powerless in Pyongyang.
External perceptions of Thae are symptomatic of the tendency to assess foreign governance systems through the lens of one’s own, wherein ministries of foreign affairs are naturally perceived as prestigious institutions. Yet the Ministry of Unification in Seoul maps network relations between senior regime officials, and Thae’s name does not appear on it. Even the spelling of his name (is it “Yong-ho” or “Young-ho”?) was subject to media speculation shortly after news of the defection emerged.
In any event, the question of Thae’s rank – was he an important figure, or did he not matter – is not a productive avenue of inquiry. The much weightier question concerns what his defection means for North Korean regime stability.
The answer is disarmingly simple: nothing.
Many diplomatic officials have defected from North Korea’s overseas postings down the years. All of them have gone on to forge substantive careers in Seoul or Washington, DC, but not one has induced even the slightest measurable totter in the stability of the ruling structure back home.
This does not mean that Thae does not represent a source of angst for the Korean Workers’ Party; I’m sure he does. Nevertheless, Thae was abroad and, like Kim Pyong-il and the side branches of the Kim ruling family that have for decades lived out their lives representing North Korea in distant capitals, out of sight equals out of mind, and out of mind equals circumscribed political authority.
The North Korean government naturally has to respond to the defection, but that is no proxy by which to measure regime stability
The North Korean government naturally has to respond to the defection, but that is no proxy by which to measure regime stability. Thus far, the process has taken place in the outward-facing media. Internally speaking, all is quiet.
According to a Daily NK correspondent inside North Korea on August 22, “Some cadres and residents near the border area have heard talk of a family from our embassy in the UK defecting. But the vast majority of residents don’t know the details of the incident, and no major rumors are circulating.”
Tellingly, the same piece continues, “Those aware of the incident learned of it by secretly tuning into TV programming based in the Yanbian Autonomous Korean Prefecture of China, or during telephone conversations with individuals outside of the country. Even then, however, few have shown much interest in the case (emphasis added).”
Of course, silence won’t work for every situation, and the diplomatic class in North Korea will have to be sternly reminded of how much they have to lose by following Thae’s lead. This process will involve the stick – Ambassador Hyon Hak-bong has reportedly been recalled to Pyongyang, or so the unreliable South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo claims. And other reports suggest that diplomatic families stationed abroad together will once more be recalled to Pyongyang – and the carrot – a reminder, as if it were not already wholly apparent, of the lifestyle benefits that accrue to the diplomat corps posted overseas.
Reading about the Thae defection brings to mind a 2015 op-ed by Joo Seong-ha, the well-regarded Donga Ilbo reporter originally from Pyongyang. There is, Joo wrote, plenty of evidence available to anyone whose tendency is to see the end of the Kim regime somewhere just over the horizon: perennial economic weakness, the purge and execution of elite officials in large numbers, including Kim Jong Un’s own uncle, and the spread of nominally seditious foreign media throughout the country. Yet in fact none of these things are actually a threat to the ruling power, and as such have little measurable impact on the longevity of the regime. Governments don’t fall that way.
There is…plenty of evidence available to anyone whose tendency is to see the end of the Kim regime somewhere just over the horizon
Thae’s defection raises eyebrows, but even talk of him as a black box containing the regime’s secrets is greatly out of step with reality, much less his reimagining as the harbinger of the Kim regime’s demise. Thae can and surely will cast a bright spotlight on the illicit undertakings in which North Korean diplomatic officials overseas are obliged to engage. And he is no doubt in possession of juicy details about what goes on behind the curtain of the authoritarian control structure whose tentacles spread from Pyongyang out into the hinterlands of DPRK state power worldwide. But to anticipate that he might blow the lid off the Kim regime would be gravely misguided.
Main picture: Wikimedia Commons, NK News edit
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