By Abby Shamray
Editor in Chief
This October, North Korean vice foreign minister Kung Sok-Ung was stripped of his title and ordered to go to a rural farming area with his family, according to the Straits Times. A South Korean government official reported that it may have been the result of a reshuffle of the European Affairs cabinet following the defection of a high-level diplomat, Deputy Ambassador Thae Yong Ho, but other analysts speculate Kung may have been connected to the incident. An anonymous source told JoongAng Ilbo that, “Kung Sok-Ung was held accountable for the embassies in Europe and purged as a result.”
The BBC reports that Thae is the highest-ranking diplomat to have defected. The spokesman for the Unification Ministry in Seoul Jeong Joon-Hee told a news conference, “We know that Deputy Ambassador Thae is saying that his distaste for the Kim Jong-un regime and yearning for the Republic of Korea’s free democratic system and the future of his child are motives for the defection.”
In late September, Thae’s defection, along with several other incidences of North Korean defecting, led to South Korean President Park Geun-hye to call on North Koreans to defect and welcomed them into South Korea. Park told potential defectors, “We will keep the road open for you to find hope and live a new life. Please come to the bosom of freedom in the South whenever you want.”
Park addressed the “gruesome realities” that North Korean face and emphasized that “freedom, democracy, human rights, and welfare” were universal values that North Koreans should be able to enjoy, according to Al-Jazeera. She mentioned that the number of North Korean defectors was at an all-time high, even by “North Korean elites who have been supporting the regime.” Park appeared to have been alluding to the defection of a North Korean ambassador a month prior to her speech.
Earlier this year, 12 waitresses and their manager from a North Korean restaurant in China defected to the South. An official at the Unification Ministry said that they were permitted to enter into normal society following a prolonged period of investigation. The diplomat who defected also had to go through a complicated process in order to defect, Reuters reported. An unnamed source told South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper that the diplomat had a “scrupulous plan” to defect and was going to “land in a third country as an asylum seeker.”
Shortly before Park’s announcement, a North Korean soldier had snuck across the heavily protected Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the two Koreas in order to defect. He was the second member of the North Korean military to defect in three years, following a soldier who defected in June, according to the New York Times. The soldier who defected in June told officials that he fled because of widespread beating and other abuse within the military. Officials are still briefing the soldier who defected in September to discover his motives. His defection is notable because it is rare for North Koreans to cross the land or sea border; usually defections are made by going through China.
For the first half of 2016, the number of detections totaled 814, an annual increase of 15 percent. The plethora of defections has followed an increase in tension between North and South Korea following the North’s nuclear testing. The number of defectors used to reach over 2,000 a year, but after Kim Jong-un reached power, the number of defectors was cut in half. It appears to have been due to more difficulty in escaping and increased punishment, rather than better conditions. Park said in her speech that the increase in 2016 has been due to an increase in oppression and widespread hunger.
Since the armistice that halted the Korea War in 1953, almost 30,000 North Koreans have defected. Relations on the Korean peninsula are at an all-time low since the Cold War in the 1970s. This year alone, Pyongyang has test-fired more than 20 missiles and carried out two nuclear tests, according to Al-Jazeera.