(Yonhap Feature) High-profile defector sheds light on everyday life of N. Korean diplomats

Five years into North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's reign this past summer, Thae Yong-ho, a senior North Korean diplomat, concluded that he had had enough of the iron fist rule of the three Kim generations.

Despite the Kim regime's notorious restrictions on the inflow of outside news, he, like other North Korean elites, was aware of the wide disparity between how North Korea looked from the inside and out.

The disparity was felt more acutely for Thae who, as a diplomat, was allowed free access to the Internet, a privilege given exceptionally to diplomats who have to fend off any external criticism of the communist regime.

"The first thing North Korean diplomats based overseas do at work is open the homepage of (South Korea's) Yonhap News Agency whose North Korea section compiles all the local and foreign news involving North Korea. Even what I said today will be read by every North Korean diplomat who is outside of the country," Thae said at a press meeting on Tuesday.

The Internet also connected him to the vast pool of South Korean media content involving fellow North Koreans who risked their lives to escape the socialist country and have successfully settled down in the South.

The 1950-53 Korean War divided the Koreas into two ideologically different countries and the rivalry has continued to today, with more than 30,000 North Koreans defecting to South Korea between the early 1960s until recently. Only a small number of South Koreans have deserted their country to become North Korean.

"I got to know the superiority of democracy and witnessed the democratization (of other countries) from the Internet, and realized that the North Korean regime has no future," he said, recalling how he finally made the decision to desert.

"As the Kim Jong-un regime took power, I had a slight hope that he would make a rational, reasonable regime because he must be well aware of how the world runs after he studied overseas for a long time," Thae said. But Kim turned out even more merciless than his father and late leader Kim Jong-il, he said, citing the shocking public execution of the leader's once-powerful uncle Jang Song-thaek in 2013 as one of the moments of awakening that eventually solidified his decision to defect.

In July, he deserted his minister post in London and came to Seoul with his wife and two college-age sons through what was believed to be a clandestine joint operation between South Korea and Britain.

Thae became the highest-ranking North Korean government official to desert the socialist North Korea to come to the capitalist South since Hwang Jang-yop, formerly a secretary for ideological affairs at the North Korea's governing party, defected to Seoul in 1997.

At the Tuesday press briefing, Thae's first conference with journalists here, he talked about the inner workings of the North Korean regime as well as his life as a North Korean diplomat, offering a rare firsthand look at the little-known everyday life of North Korean diplomats.

North Korean diplomats and their families who are dispatched to foreign countries live together as one group. It's like a microcosm of North Korean society, he said. An ambassador takes home an average monthly salary of about US$900-1,100 although the amount varies depending on the country. A minister gets about $700-800.

"Many people question how one could live in London with a salary of less than $1,000 ... (Because of that) All the North Korean diplomats based overseas make extra income using all means possible," according to Thae.

Diplomats are also required to earn foreign currency and send it to the regime, a compulsory task designed to make up for North Korea's dwindling foreign exchange income due to sanctions, which is crucial to its development of nuclear weapons.

"Diplomats affiliated with the ministries of foreign trade or finance are given specific tasks to earn foreign currency, failure of which leads to interrogation by the head office," Thae said.

Those from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are not given a specific amount of money to earn, but they are subject to monthly performance reviews, he said. "Many people fail to live up to the task and go under tremendous psychological pressure and suffering."

North Korean diplomats in overseas countries are also subject to close surveillance by the state. The ambassador or second-highest ranking official at a foreign mission is often designated the chief surveillance official and required to report on his embassy staff.

Wary of potential defection by diplomats, the regime keeps one member of the overseas-based diplomat's family in North Korea as hostage, he noted.

Thae Yong-ho speaks to journalists on Dec. 27, 2016, in his first press conference. (Yonhap)

Exposed to the outside world and information, North Korean diplomats often face a dilemma of knowing the fabrication of Pyongyang and having to still speak for the regime's pursuit of nuclear weapons and human rights records.

"North Korea's elite class is living an opportunistic life and believes that they can continue to live like that (with the privileges they enjoy). During the day, they extol the virtues of Kim Jong-un, but at night they hide themselves under a blanket to watch (South Korean) dramas," the 55-year-old career diplomat said.

"I, myself, had to cry hooray for Kim Jong-un ... but I had a very difficult time defending the North Korean state during meetings with people in Britain in which most people denounced the North's system and challenged my vindication of it," according to him.

The North Korean government is well aware of such a dilemma and strains to keep outside news from its people, even from the country's top echelons, he noted.

"Even a vice head of the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) of the Workers' Party of Korea cannot enter a (foreign ministry) room where CNN is being played although a common member of the foreign ministry is given access to it," Thae said. "The OGD vice head may have complete sway over me, but he is only allowed government-filtered information, and nothing else."

Diplomats also keep their mouth shut primarily out of desperation to protect themselves and their families who can fall victim to the regime's merciless dealings with those who let out banned information.

"North Korean society is sustainable only on the condition that the inflow of outside information is shut out. The day such information makes inroads, North Korea would fall apart," he said.

North Korea's once-robust control on external information, however, is already showing signs of erosion amid the uncontrollable spread of popular South Korean dramas and movies among the North Korean elite as well as ordinary citizens, he pointed out.

"Measures to block so-called hallyu (the global spread of South Korean popular culture) in the North are not so easy now. A hoard of forces are sent out to crack down on young North Koreans who exchange text messages in the South Korean way of speaking they picked up from South Korean dramas," Thae said. Even the crackdown efforts are being misused as illicit sources of income for surveillance officials who often release suspects in return for a bribe of some $20-30, according to him.

Nearly six months into his new life in South Korea now, he has almost overcome the worries he harbored before coming to the South that he may lose the privileged status he enjoyed back in the North.

"The capitalist society in the South has fierce competition for survival, but I realized that opportunities are still there for those who live and work diligently. The South Korean government also needs to make its defector assistance programs and policy better known so more people (in North Korea) can yearn for South Korean society."

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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