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High-profile defector quits state-sponsored job

May 25,2018
Thae Yong-ho, the loquacious North Korean diplomat whose defection to South Korea in 2016 made him the highest-ranking official to defect in nearly 20 years, resigned from his post as adviser at an institute affiliated with the National Intelligence Service, the country’s spy agency, on Wednesday.

The 55-year-old defector told the JoongAng Ilbo that the choice was entirely his own and one that would help him remain independent and active in writing about North Korea. “One thing is for sure,” Thae said. “I am now a free man.”

In August 2016, Thae left his post as deputy ambassador at the North Korean Embassy in London with his wife and two sons and defected to South Korea. Since the start of last year, he had been working at the Institute for National Security Strategy, an NIS-affiliated organization that provides in-depth analyses and policy recommendations on diplomacy, security, economy and inter-Korean relations.

News of Thae’s resignation came one week after he published a 544-page autobiography with a Korean title that roughly translates to “The Secret Code of the Three-Story Secretariat Office: Thae Yong-ho’s Testimony.”

North Korea’s state media was quick to condemn the South for allowing “human scum to brazenly hurl mud at the dignity of the supreme leadership” of North Korea after the book’s release last week. The statement’s apparent target was Thae.

Thae told the JoongAng Ilbo that his decision to leave the institute had “nothing to do with the recent statement” made by North Korea. “I want to emphasize that I voluntarily resigned, no matter what people say. If I don’t make it clear that it was my own independent decision, it may seem like someone pressured me to quit.”

In his book, Thae recounts his experience as a diplomat for Pyongyang and offers rare North Korean insight into the affairs of the ruling family.

While serving in the North Korean Embassy in London, Thae said he accompanied leader Kim Jong-un’s older brother, Kim Jong-chol, to an Eric Clapton concert in 2015. The brother was such a big fan of Clapton, according to Thae, that the North Korean government tried to book him for a performance in Pyongyang with 1 million euros, about $1.17 million. Clapton didn’t accept the invitation and returned the money.

Thae said he would continue to receive state protection, including five bodyguards that the South Korean government has assigned to protect him from attempts by the North to harm him.

On whether he would continue working in South Korea or go overseas, Thae did not provide a definitive answer, saying he would reveal his future plans “once they are organized.”

BY LEE YOUNG-JONG, LAURA SONG [song.hankyul@joongang.co.kr]