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N.K. diplomat defector, wife from highly privileged families: source

2016/08/18 11:24

SEOUL, Aug. 18 (Yonhap) -- A top North Korean diplomat and his wife who defected to South Korea come from privileged backgrounds as they are decendents of guerrillas who fought against Japanese colonialists in the 1930s, a source familiar with the matter said Thursday.

Thae Yong-ho, who served as minister at North Korea's embassy in London, is believed to be the son of late four-star general Thae Pyong-ryol who actively took part in the anti-Japanese campaign, led by North Korea's late founder Kim Il-sung, according to the source.

The North's diplomat Thae, his wife and children have recently defected to South Korea, making him one of the highest-level North Koreans to desert the repressive regime, South Korea's unification ministry said Wednesday. As minister, he was the No. 2 man at the diplomatic mission there.

"A North Korean diplomat usually works in overseas missions for three years, but Thae had worked in London for 10 years, mainly because of his good family ties," the source said.

Born in 1913, Thae's father served as a member of the ruling party's central committee rising to the rank of a full general in the Korean People's Army (KPA) before his death in 1997.

O Hye-son, Thae's wife, is also known as a descendant of O Peak-ryong who also joined the anti-Japanese guerrilla activities with the communist country's founder, according to another source. The senior O died at the age of 70 in 1984.

She is believed to be a close relative of O Kum-chol, vice chief of the KPA General Staff, who is the son of O Peak-ryong, it added.

Thae's high-profile defection is seen as a sign that more North Korean elites may follow suit in the face of the iron-fist rule by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and tougher international sanctions that is even affecting the lives of the country's ruling class.

Seoul's unification ministry said that Thae defected to Seoul due to his disillusionment with the North's regime under the incumbent leader and aspiration for freedom. The diplomat may have chosen to defect for a better future for his children.

Meanwhile, the unification ministry said Thae, who was initially thought to have sought asylum in a third country, is one of the most senior North Korean diplomats to have defected to Seoul so far.

In 1997, Jang Sung-gil, the then North Korean ambassador to Egypt, sought asylum in the United States, with his elder brother, a North Korean diplomat based in France.

sooyeon@yna.co.kr

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