S. Korea: Senior N. Korean diplomat based in London defects

View at the entrance of the North Korea Embassy in London, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016. A senior North Korean diplomat based in London has defected to South Korea, becoming one of the highest Northern officials to do so, South Korea said Wednesday. Thae Yong Ho, minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, has arrived in South Korea with his family and is under the protection of the South Korean government, Seoul's Unification Ministry said. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
View at the entrance of the North Korea Embassy in London, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016. A senior North Korean diplomat based in London has defected to South Korea, becoming one of the highest Northern officials to do so, South Korea said Wednesday. Thae Yong Ho, minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, has arrived in South Korea with his family and is under the protection of the South Korean government, Seoul's Unification Ministry said. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon Hee speaks about a senior North Korea diplomat's defection to South Korea during a press conference at the government complex in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016. Unification Ministry said Wednesday that Thae Yong Ho, minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, recently defected to South Korea with his family. The sign reads " Unification Ministry". (Kim Hyun-tae/Yonhap via AP)
A camera man films the entrance of the North Korea Embassy in London, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016. A senior North Korean diplomat based in London has defected to South Korea, becoming one of the highest Northern officials to do so, South Korea said Wednesday. Thae Yong Ho, minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, has arrived in South Korea with his family and is under the protection of the South Korean government, Seoul's Unification Ministry said. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
People watch a TV news program showing a file image of Thae Yong Ho, minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016. Thae has defected to South Korea, becoming one of the highest Northern officials to do so, South Korea said Wednesday. The letters read "A high-ranking North Korean diplomat". (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
This is an image taken from video taken on April 5, 2004 of Thae Yong Ho, North Korean diplomat speaking during an interview in Pyongyang. North Korea diplomat Thae Yong Ho who was based in London has defected, according to South Korean officials. Seoul's Unification Ministry announced on Wednesday Aug. 17, 2016 that Thae Yong Ho, minister at the North Korean Embassy in the UK capital, recently defected to South Korea with his family. (AP Photo)

SEOUL, South Korea — A senior North Korean diplomat based in London has defected to South Korea, becoming one of the highest Northern officials to do so, South Korea said Wednesday.

Thae Yong Ho, minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, has arrived in South Korea with his family and is under the protection of the South Korean government, Seoul's Unification Ministry said.

Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-Hee said Thae told South Korean officials that he decided to defect because of his disgust with the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, his yearning for South Korean democracy and worries about the future of his children.

Jeong said Thae was the second-highest official in North Korea's embassy, and is the most senior North Korean diplomat to defect to South Korea. In 1997, the North Korean ambassador to Egypt fled but resettled in the United States.

Jeong refused to give further details about Thae's defection, citing possible diplomatic problems with a concerned country he didn't identify. Britain's Foreign Office declined to comment.

The highest-level North Korean to seek asylum in South Korea is Hwang Jang-yop, a senior ruling Workers' Party official who once tutored Kim Jong Un's late father, dictator Kim Jong Il. Hwang's 1997 defection was hailed by many South Koreans as an intelligence bonanza and a sign that the North's political system was inferior to the South's. Hwang died in 2010.

Thae's defection will likely enrage North Korea, which often accuses South Korea of kidnapping or enticing its citizens to defect.

South Korea doesn't always make high-level defection cases public. Its revelation of Thae's defection came as ties between the rivals are at one of their lowest points in decades over the North's nuclear ambitions. North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in January, and South Korea has been working hard to apply more international pressure on the North.

Jeong said Thae's defection could be a sign that unity in Kim Jong Un's ruling class is weakening.

Analyst Chang Yong Seok at Seoul National University's Institute for Peace and Unification Studies disputed that assessment, saying there are no tangible signs that Kim's grip on power is being challenged. "Senior North Korean officials have defected before, but these have all been isolated cases that weren't followed by a chain of defections by other officials," he said.

Ramon Pacheco Pardo, senior lecturer in international relations at King's College London, said a diplomatic defection "could prove very valuable to South Korea, the U.S. and other countries."

"Most North Korean defectors have limited access to the inner workings of the North Korean regime," he said. "The defection of a diplomat would allow intelligence services and military forces in other countries to learn more about the level of support that Kim Jong Un enjoys, recent developments in North Korea's nuclear and missile programs or the extent to which real economic reforms are being implemented.

"The defection of a high-level diplomat could also signal growing internal skepticism about the strength of the Kim Jong Un regime, since they are a rare occurrence."

Thae, 55, is a veteran diplomat who is experienced in dealing with countries in Western Europe. He led a North Korean delegation that held talks with European Union representatives over the North's human rights situation in Brussels in 2001, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency.

Thae had worked at the North Korean Embassy in London for about 10 years, Yonhap said. Previously, he worked at its now-closed embassy in Denmark and spent a short period of time at its embassy in Sweden, it said.

More than 29,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, according to South Korean government records. Many defectors have said they wanted to leave North Korea's harsh political system and poverty.

In April, 13 North Koreans working at a North Korean-operated restaurant in China defected to South Korea in the largest group defection since Kim Jong Un took power in late 2011. Later in April, South Korea also revealed that a colonel in North Korea's military spy agency had defected to the South last year.

Wednesday's announcement came as North Korea is responding angrily to a U.S. plan to place an advanced missile defense system in South Korea. The North has warned of unspecified retaliation and fired several missiles into the sea earlier this month.

___

Associated Press writer Jill Lawless in London contributed to this story.

Must Read

S. Korea: Senior N. Korean diplomat based in...

Aug 17, 2016

South Korea says a senior North Korean diplomat based in London has defected to the South, becoming...

Biden's remark on Japan Constitution raises...

Aug 18, 2016

A recent remark by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden that America wrote Japan's Constitution is raising...

Trump's shrinking trade appeal evident in North...

Aug 22, 2016

North Carolina may be the state most pivotal to Donald Trump's White House bid, and the audience...

Japan, China, S. Korea ministers slam N. Korea...

Aug 24, 2016

The foreign ministers of China, Japan and South Korea have criticized North Korea's latest missile...

Japan, China, S. Korea unite in condemning N....

Aug 24, 2016

The foreign ministers of China, Japan and South Korea put aside frictions over territorial disputes...

People also read these

S. Korea: Senior N. Korean diplomat based in...

Aug 17, 2016

South Korea says a senior North Korean diplomat based in London has defected to the South, becoming...

Massive dam project at center of China-Myanmar...

Aug 18, 2016

Efforts by Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi to improve ties with China may hinge on whether she...

Taking heat, US officials defend $400M cash...

Aug 19, 2016

The Obama administration defends its decision to make a $400 million cash delivery to Iran...

Philippine rebels declare cease-fire to foster...

Aug 19, 2016

Philippine communist rebels have declared a weeklong cease-fire to promote the resumption of...

Chinese ships, planes hold war games in Sea of...

Aug 21, 2016

China's military says its planes and ships held war games in the Sea of Japan last week, during...