Pro-North group says South coerced defector

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Pro-North group says South coerced defector

As both Seoul and Pyongyang remain tight-lipped about Thae Yong-ho, the North Korean diplomat who defected from the London embassy earlier this year, an unofficial mouthpiece of the North was said to have accused the South Korean government of “bribing or coercing” Thae into making the escape.

The London-based newspaper the Telegraph cited Kim Myong-chol, executive director of the Center for North Korea-U.S. Peace, a pro-North Korean group based in Japan, as saying that Thae’s defection is a “typical operation of South Korean intelligence services and part of a plot to bring down North Korea.”

The South Korean government and President Park Geun-hye, Kim reportedly claimed, is “trying to seduce North Korean diplomats around the world with money or women.”

“It’s also possible that they abducted his children and held them hostage until he agreed to go to South Korea,” said Kim.

In a press briefing on Friday, Jeong Joon-hee, a spokesman for the South’s Ministry of Unification, brushed off the accusation, saying Pyongyang has no better way to explain such a senior diplomat voluntarily leaving the regime.

The core motivation for Thae’s defection, he stressed, was his “longing” for South Korea and the “free world.”

Pyongyang has yet to make any official statement about Thae. When asked whether Seoul has any clue why this is the case, Jeong suggested that the North could be “cautiously observing the situation” out of concern it may rattle the internal leadership.

As for why the South Korean government has been reluctant to release further details about Thae, the official said local authorities were weighing various aspects, including Thae’s personal safety and international ramifications.

Jeong also declined to confirm local media reports indicating there are at least four more cases of defection by North Korean diplomats to South Korea this year: one from Bulgaria, another from Russia and two from Southeast Asian nations.

According to multiple sources who spoke under the condition of anonymity, Thae physically met an official from the South Korean government in mid-July at a tennis court in Britain and said he wished to defect with his wife and two sons. The family realized that plan late last month, traveling directly from the United Kingdom to South Korea.

That rendezvous at the tennis court was the first time Thae had ever opened up to a South Korean official about his desire to defect, the sources said.

Steve Evans, a South Korean correspondent for BBC, wrote in an article published Tuesday that he has pleasant memories” with Thae and that “the signs were there” that the diplomat thought about defecting to South Korea.

“I recall he asked me about life in Seoul,” wrote Evans. “I told him it was a mega-bustling city, a world away from Pyongyang.”

While foreign media suggested Thae might have defected to the South chiefly for money, highlighting the fact that North Korean missions abroad are financially broke, a recent study published by a Seoul-based research group state that diplomats do, in fact, tend to work on short budget.

According to a research paper issued in January by the Korean Association of North Korean Studies, which is composed of former and current officials in the National Intelligence Service, a North Korean ambassador is paid between $700 and $800 per month. A counselor earns $600 to $700, while a secretary-level diplomat earns $500 to $600.

Some $2,000 to $3,000 is earmarked every year for each North Korean embassy, but most of the amount is allocated for the annual birthday receptions of former leader Kim Jong-il and his father, Kim Il Sung.

All cooking is done by the diplomats’ wives, and there are no chefs. Short on cash, most diplomats smuggle money out of their home countries through illegal channels, according to the report. The study was based on the testimonies of a former North Korean diplomat stationed in Ethiopia, who defected to the South last year.

The embassies that are most economically stabile, the source said, are the ones stationed in China and Southeast Asia.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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