Cracks in the elite

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Cracks in the elite

The defection of North Korea’s elite diplomat Thae Yong-ho, a consul in its British Embassy in London, and his family to South Korea is shocking.

Diplomats are an unfathomably privileged class in the North.

Moreover, the fathers of both Thae and his wife were independence fighters during Japanese colonial rule, who received the highest respect from the people in North Korea. The consul is a son of the late Thae Byong-ryol, a four-star general of the People’s Army and a comrade to North Korean leader Kim Il Sung during the independence movement. His wife is connected to Vice Chief of the North Korean Army General Staff Gen. Oh Kum-chol, who was also Kim Il Sung’s comrade during the independence battle.

Considering that these defectors are core members of the elite in North Korea, their decision to defect at the risk of their lives reflects the grim reality that they could not find any hope in the despotic Kim Jong-un regime.

Defections from the top tier of North Korean society have occurred before. Thanks to the North’s strict screening procedures for diplomats, they defect very rarely — less than once a year in the past. But at least five defections have occurred since February, including a diplomat from the North Korean embassy in Bulgaria.

Diplomats are different from ordinary people in the North because they belong to the “nomenklatura,” who receive special treatment from the regime in material terms. They have the ability to learn about South Korean prosperity through foreign media and contrast it to the extreme poverty of their homeland. They do not defect for economic reasons but for political reasons — unbearable disgust and disillusionment with the merciless system orchestrated by Kim Jong-un.

The unimaginable defection of member of the communist aristocracy could shake the very foundation of the dictatorship.

What attracts our attention is that the family decided to defect for a better future for their children. One of Thae’s two sons graduated from a university in Britain. The other was set to enter one. No matter how tightly North Korean authorities monitor their diplomats’ movements, you can never suppress human instincts like parents’ love for their offspring. Unless Pyongyang pulls back all its diplomats, their rush to the outside world will continue.

Kim’s reign of terror is shaky. A regime can collapse at any time when it is ostracized by the elite. His regime did not collapse shortly after the death in 2011 of his father Kim Jong-il. That does not mean it will not happen in the near future.


JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 19, Page 30

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