Last week, media reported that yet another defection of a high-level North Korean official has taken place.
This time, it was Jo Song Gil, the acting North Korean ambassador to Italy, who is on the run. Having reportedly applied for asylum, he and his family are now under the protection by the Italian security services.
Predictably, international media are presenting this defection as a “heavy blow” to the Kim regime.
This might be indeed the case, ambassador defections are not that common. Jo Song Gil might be of additional importance because the North Korean embassy in Italy is also charged with a vital task of negotiating the DPRK’s food aid with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
When discussing Jo Song Gil, many have raised the example of Thae Yong-ho, the former deputy ambassador to United Kingdom whose defection in 2016 attracted much attention.
In the subsequent years Thae has written and published a remarkably balanced and deep book about North Korea’s foreign ministry, made a number of observant comments about North Korean politics and, essentially, became a one-man-force to reckon with – perhaps the most influential of all North Korean defectors.
Many people expect that Jo Song Gil will follow Thae’s footsteps. This is not impossible, but at this stage we should not jump to conclusions about the impact of Ambassador Jo’s defection.
International media are presenting this defection as a “heavy blow” to the Kim regime
HIGH-PROFILE DEFECTIONS, PAST AND PRESENT
It makes sense, at this juncture, to recall how and when North Korean diplomats have defected (and what they did after their defection).
The first defection of a high-ranking North Korean diplomat happened more than sixty years ago. In October 1956, Yi Sang-jo, then the DPRK ambassador to the Soviet Union, applied for asylum.
After Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, the Soviet Union leadership changed its course: while retaining the authoritarian regime, it greatly relaxed censorship and surveillance, reduced the number of political prisoners by thousands within a few years, dismantled an absurd personality cult, and introduced numerous other changes which were seen as a revival of the early revolutionary spirit of Marxism.
Yi Sang-jo, a lifelong Marxist zealot, an underground activist, and, later, a spymaster (he headed North Korea’s military intelligence for a while) was impressed by these changes and believed that his country should emulate them.
In the spring of 1956 some high-level North Korean cadres, inspired by similar ideas, wanted to remove Kim Il Sung and imitate Soviet policy.
Yi enthusiastically supported this group, and became their contact point in Moscow. In autumn 1956, when their challenge was defeated and the activists purged, he asked for asylum.
In those days, the Soviet authorities were happy to grant asylum to anti-Stalinist communists, so Yi Sang-jo’s application was successful. Interestingly, in late 1956 he worked with the Soviet foreign ministry to ensure that his defection would not attract much attention in the Western media – a scandal would have been highly damaging for the Communist camp.
For a while, Soviet authorities were willing to grant the runaway ambassador some special treatment. For example, he was admitted to an elite training center for high-level bureaucrats in Moscow.
The first defection of a high-ranking North Korean diplomat happened more than sixty years ago
A few years later, however, Soviet leaders came to the conclusion that Yi Sang-jo, as well as other North Korean defectors, were potential trouble makers. Moscow did not want them to influence the relations with North Korea.
The Soviet officials felt much sympathy towards them, but for the sake of national interest believed they should be kept quiet.
The Soviet state had many ways to ensure that people would not be too talkative: Yi Sang-jo was sent to a comfortable exile in Minsk, a large city some 600 kilometers from Moscow completely devoid of any North Korean presence, and given an undemanding and well-paid job there.
He was protected from the North Koreans, but also kept under constant surveillance.
Yi remained quiet until the 1990s. In the last years of his life, when the collapse of the Soviet Union made all old restrictions irrelevant, he joined some anti-Pyongyang groups, and generally returned to the political activism.
However, Yi Sang-jo was in his late 70s then, so the actual significance of his activism was marginal.
The next high-profile defection was that of Ko Yong-hwan, a one-time French interpreter for Kim Il Sung and the chancellor of the North Korean embassy in Congo. He defected in 1991.
His defection was assisted by some sympathetic local officials, and he defected alone, since he believed (or, at least, he says he believed) that his wife would not support his decision. His final destination was Seoul.
Soon after his arrival Ko Yong-hwan got a job at the Institute for National Security Strategy, a government think tank with very close connections to the intelligence services.
The Institute has long been a place for well-informed elite defectors to be employed as analysts and consultants – Thae Yong-ho worked there for a while, but left in 2017 (obviously, to avoid censorship of his public statements by the South Korean government). Ko Yong-hwan has remained there ever since (now he is in semi-retirement).
Ko’s comments on current affairs occasionally appear in the media, but he largely keeps a low profile, and by no means can be seen as an independent political actor.
Predictably, under Moon Jae-in’s government he is seldom heard from – the new masters of the Blue House work hard to keep defectors whose remarks might damage government efforts to present North Korea in the most sympathetic light out of the public eye.
DIPLOMATS ON THE RUN
In 1997, almost exactly forty years after Yi Sang-jo’s defection to Moscow, another North Korean ambassador chose to defect. This time it was Jang Sung-gil (Jang Seung-gil in the current official transcription), the North Korean ambassador to Egypt. While Egypt itself is not particularly significant, the North Korean embassy there acted as a major hub of North Korean operations, including then-highly-profitable arms sales, in the Middle East.
Jang defected in August 1997, not only with his wife, but also with his brother, then a North Korean diplomat in Paris – a sure sign that the defection was planned well in advance (actually, as it has became known much later, ambassador’s son expressed interest in defection as early as 1994).
However, Jang Sung-gil’s final destination was not South Korea, but the United States.
His reasons for choosing the U.S. are not clear, but one might suspect that he was worried about his personal safety. In February 1997 Yi Han-yong, a relative of one of Kim Jong Il’s girlfriends who defected to South Korea in the late 1980s, was shot dead near his house – obviously, an act of revenge for publishing a rather harsh book about the Kim family’s internal dealings.
From the very beginning few people doubted that this assassination was executed by the North Korean agents, so for Jang Sung-gil in August 1997 South Korea did not look safe enough.
Ambassador Jang, having been reportedly smuggled out of Egypt by the CIA, arrived in the U.S. This was not that unusual: a number of other high-level North Korean defectors (including Kim family members) made the same decision around the same time – one should mention Ko Young-suk, the aunt of Kim Jong Un who, together with her husband, defected to the U.S. in 1998.
She lives there in an unknown location under an assumed identity and, reportedly, runs a laundry shop.
Jang Sung-gil essentially followed the same strategy: upon arrival in the United States, he simply disappeared from the public view. In the subsequent 20 years he has studiously avoided media, and declined attempts to establish contact.
Obviously, he believes that the U.S. is a place where he and his family is safe, and he has neither the ambition nor the sense of duty which would push him towards political participation.
So, the most likely long-term outcome of Jang Sung-gil’s defection, once hailed as a “start of the new era” by the media, is that the U.S. got some useful intelligence, while some small town in mid-America got a nice dry cleaning shop run by a good-looking Korean gentleman and his wife, both remarkably reluctant to talk about their past.
South Korean and U.S. intelligence are remarkably reluctant to inform the public about defections of high-level officials of the North Korean regime
There were some other, less prominent diplomatic defections. For example Hong Su-gyoung, who fled the DPRK embassy in Thailand in 1999, was intercepted by North Korean operatives who wanted to smuggle him out of the country.
He was saved by the intervention of the Thai police and went to South Korea. However, in the South he has remained quite marginal, in spite of joining some small defectors’ groups and associations. Hong is now in his early 80s.
There have been other similar defection incidents involving low-and mid-ranking North Korean diplomats in Germany, Russia, Zambia and other places.
There are good reasons to believe that the actual number is higher, since South Korean and U.S. intelligence are remarkably reluctant to inform the public about defections of high-level officials of the North Korean regime.
Most of this half-dozen or so diplomatic defectors came to North Korea and live in Seoul quietly, often being employed by the above-mentioned Institute for National Security Strategy. Some are known to have moved to the U.S. where, as is usually the case, they have largely disappeared from public view.
THE FATE OF JO
Precedent suggests, then, that Jo Song Gil’s defection is not necessarily going to have much impact on the current situation. Judging by what is known now, at the time of writing, it seems that Ambassador Jo is going to settle down in the U.S.
If this is indeed the case, there is a high-probability that he is going to choose the security, comfort and anonymity provided by the “American option.”
As we have seen, this has been a surprisingly common choice for elite defectors, who it seems have little belief in South Korea’s ability to protect them against assassins, and less of a desire to change the world and their country.
From this author’s point of view, the choice of the United States makes even more sense in the current climate. The people in charge of South Korea are deeply suspicious of defectors and likely see them as an obstacle to their current policy, whose major aim now is to repair relations with the North.
Jo Song Gil’s defection is not necessarily going to have much impact on the current situation
The existence of defectors and their stories are not going to help with achieving this goal.
South Korea’s conservatives are not much better: they welcome defectors only as long as they agree to remain reliable cheerleaders for the policies favored by the “conservative camp” in Seoul.
So far, Thae Yong-ho has been an exception – he is unusually smart, articulate, willing to take risks and work hard – rather than the rule. These qualities are not exceptional, but not too common either.
It is not impossible that Jo Song Gil might become another exception, but for the time being I am inclined to believe that in a few years’ time a laundry shop in Minnesota or North Carolina is going to acquire another owner, a Korean gentleman in his 40s, remarkably reluctant to talk about his past.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Parrocchia di Farra di Soligo
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