Tag Archive | "defectors"

Five Notable Facts about Thae Yong-Ho

By Juni Kim

North Korea watchers have been busy for the last few days thanks to the high-profile defection of DPRK’s second-in-command in London, Thae Yong-Ho. While information will continue to emerge about Thae and his motivations, here are five interesting facts that we know thus far.


He defected with his family

Thae was able to defect with his wife and children. Jeong Joon-hee, a spokesman for the South Korean Unification Ministry, noted in a press conference that Thae’s defection was partially motivated by his concern for his family’s future. It is widely reported that in order to deter potential defections, North Korea often punishes relatives still in North Korea. Although the method of Thae’s defection with his family is unknown, the fact that he could secure his immediate family’s safety likely played a large role in his decision.


He was scheduled to return to Pyongyang

Steve Evans, a BBC Korea correspondent, noted that Thae was scheduled to return to Pyongyang with his family. Although it is merely speculation at his point, Thae’s pending return to North Korea may have troubled him because of fear of regime retribution upon his arrival. Evans speculated that negative press about North Korea in the British media may have caused Thae to draw the regime’s ire. In addition, some experts have noted that with increased scrutiny of North Korea’s illicit activities, diplomats such as Thae may be having a hard time meeting quotas of gold, cigarettes and other valuable items they used to smuggle back to Pyongyang.


He is the highest-ranking North Korean diplomat to defect in nearly 20 years

As the second highest ranked North Korean diplomat in London, Thae’s defection makes him the highest-ranking diplomat to defect since 1997, when North Korean Ambassador to Egypt Jang Seung-gil sought asylum with his wife at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Jang Seung-gil was also scheduled to return to Pyongyang at the time of his defection.


He lived in London for 10 years 

Thae worked in London for 10 years, which is an unusually long post for a North Korean diplomat. He was thoroughly engrossed in British suburban living, having taken up membership at a local tennis club, and he frequently played golf. Regarding Thae’s adjustment to British life, Evans commented, “He seemed so at home. He seemed so middle-class, so conservative, so dapper.”


He escorted Kim Jong-un’s brother to an Eric Clapton concert

Thae escorted Kim Jong-chul, elder brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and son of Kim Jong-il, to an Eric Clapton concert at Royal Albert Hall in 2015. A BBC video shows Thae with Kim Jong-chul emerging from a vehicle to enter the concert hall, which can be viewed here.


Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Photo from Laika ac’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Why Are Fewer Women Defecting From North Korea?

By Clare Hubbard

The 2012 Heritage Foundation/ Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom ranks North Korea last, after Cuba and Zimbabwe, with an economic freedom score of 1.  However, in the mid-1990s famine when women and men had to focus on securing food by generating income and bartering for staples and foodstuffs, small-scale markets developed.  The socialist system started to break down but it was still important for men to retain their state jobs to meet security requirements and have access to the welfare provided by the work unit. Women, on the other hand, either lost their jobs or left them to find other ways to generate income. Due to female microentrepreneurships giving North Korean women extra income, they have been able to defect in higher numbers than men; however, with North Korea pursing economic developments, the same women who might defect see a chance to make a profit and live more contently in their own country.

Money is essential when defecting from North Korea.  Bribes ranging from $100 to $1,000 (during a Pyongyang crackdown) have to be paid to border guards to allow passage without being shot at. Money is also needed for hiring a guard to take you through the Asian Underground Railroad, paying off officials and Chinese police. It can take years for North Koreans to accumulate enough money to defect.  Women account for a high number of defectors because they have the capacity to earn enough money to defect through their entrepreneurial efforts in small markets.

 In 2002 economic reforms were passed that allowed general markets to exist in North Korea, and this is the same year that women became the majority of defectors.  In 2004 men were banned from working in the markets, giving all the business to women. Women either lost their jobs or left in pursuit of more lucrative market opportunities.  In 2005 there was a drop in total number of defectors.  This drop could be due to policy reversals of the 2002 reforms in the fall of 2005, banning private trade in grain.  As a result of the ban on private trade people started to defect because of  worsening economic conditions leading to a higher defecting rate in 2006 and 2007. By 2006 markets were back to selling a variety of goods and North Korean women represented ¾ of the people defecting.  Females stayed in the 75-78% range until 2011 when they dropped to 70 percent.  Three explanations can explain why percentage of women defectors dropped:

1) Tightened security of the Chinese-North Korean border on both sides.

2) More available visas to work abroad and the ability to renew these visas after the first trip.

3) Women being more content with the current situation in North Korea.

Tightened border security could be a factor in declined defection because the control around the Chinese-North Korean border is said to have been boosted by both sides after the death of Kim Jong Il on December 17, 2011.  However, the security was also said to have gone back to normal in January/February 2012.  With border security at the same level of strictness as before and females earning enough money in their entrepreneurial careers to bribe guards their opportunities to defect became are the same as before and it can be said that tightened security is not a major factor in the percent of female defectors.

Legally, North Korean citizens are permitted to go to countries like Russia, China, Kuwait, Cambodia, Africa and Mongolia on work visas.  They leave on two year visas and now can return abroad once they’ve come home.  North Korea sends workers abroad to work in factories, restaurants and construction so that they can reach their fiscal goals.  While abroad North Koreans are not allowed to travel in their host country or have extended interactions with locals.  Their housing is usually located in or very near their work environment to prevent as much interaction with foreigners and the foreign culture as possible.  Only North Koreans with very secure family backgrounds are allowed to take these jobs and their family acts as “hostages” to assure their return. A benefit for the workers is that they earn a little bit more money than they would if they worked in North Korea. Even though these North Koreans have the ability to work in a different country they are not defectors in the sense that they do not have the mindset that defectors do: they are content with their role in North Korean society and they have no desire to leave.

While this could be the start of a new trend or just a glitch in the numbers, one thing is certain, there has been a change in the percentage of female defectors reaching South Korea.  Factors of this change could be due to economic reforms, never announced but quietly implemented, encouraging North Korean citizens to stay.  Or, the news of stricter borders could be discouraging potential defectors to leave now due to the perceived danger, waiting a little longer until they are assured security is back to normal.  North Koreans might be delaying their departure to see if the new regime will take a different approach in leading the country. The number of female defectors declining is most likely due to financial contentment in the freedom through street markets where women can make a profit and no longer feel like they have to defect to survive financially. However, the surge in inflation could also be impacting the ability of women to defect and undermine the possibility of economic reforms playing a role in the declining numbers. North Korea is undergoing major inflation made evident through the rapid increase in the price of rice and its exchange rate.  This surge is expected to worsen if the harvest, as predicted, comes in low. Inflation is eroding the savings of many citizens and makes it harder to make decent profits through the markets, even as the state is making market trade easier.

However, economic developments could give North Koreans more opportunities to pursue microfinancing by selling their extra crops in markets and then using their profits to give loans with interest to other citizens.  There have already been whispers of microfinancing from border NGOs that have talked to recent defectors about the economic situation.  Economic development, Special Economic Zones and the fact that a million North Koreans now have phones are all signs that the country is opening up.  The future of Kim Jong-un’s developments could equalize the gender ratio of defectors as more even opportunities for men and women to prosper in the market continue.

Clare Hubbard is a former Fulbright Korea English Teaching Assistant and current intern for the Korea Economic Institute.

Photo from Sung Ming Wang’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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