Thae Yong Ho’s defection in the context of the O family legacy

Thae Yong Ho was a high-ranking diplomat and minister at the North Korean embassy in London until he fled his post with his family and arrived in South Korea earlier this week. Thae was second in command at the embassy, and thus his high status is receiving quite a bit of attention from the domestic and global media. 
Thae Yong Ho’s role in the ambassador’s department was a powerful and influential one. He was responsible for checking and monitoring the ideological trends and behaviors all of the embassy’s staff and employees. He also monitored and reported on the comings and goings of international trade vessels.  

Thae’s role of creating and implementing a thorough surveillance system provided him with even more power and authority than his role at the embassy. In fact, when Kim Jong Un’s older brother Kim Jong Chul visited London to see an Eric Clapton concert in May, he received assistance from none other than Thae Yong Ho. 

His wife, O Sun Hae, is great importance in this context, too, as she is a relative of O Jung Hup, a Korean partisan guerrilla who fought against the Japanese Imperial Army alongside North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un. The O Jung Hup-led 7th Regiment Title Movement from the 1930s is a fixture of North Korean propaganda, held up as an enduring example of unconditional devotion to the Suryong [Supreme Leader]. It appears in a film series released in the 1970s, and is frequent fodder for propaganda events, most recently the “3rd Meeting of Activists of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) in the Movement for Winning the Title of O Jung Hup-led 7th Regiment.”

The North Korean authorities underscore that the military and the public need to follow the leadership with loyal fervor. That is why a defection involving a family perceived as the paradigm of loyalty must come as a blow to Kim Jong Un.

The fact that a defection can occur involving members of the O family is significant. The O family was held up as a paragon of faithful devotion to Pyongyang leadership and the Kim family. That an O family member defected is an indicator that there is authentic loyalty is fading in North Korea. More specifically, this episode reveals that loyalty has not merely withered away among the ordinary residents – it has also melted away among the top-level cadres and the privileged elite. 

When the author was still living in North Korea in 2012, high-level cadres were prone to quietly discuss the regime’s inhumane tendencies and the difficulties of a socialist economy when in the privacy of their own homes. That is to say, they understood the true nature of Kim Jong Un’s rule. 

Thae Yong Ho was much like these cadres. When performing his professional duties, he was forced to promote and espouse loyalty to the regime. However, he obviously felt differently on the inside–something we aren’t often able to glimpse. But given the opportunity, many would doubtless follow in his footsteps.   

This political problem goes up to the very top. Prominent figures such as Choe Ryong Hae and Hwang Pyong So may bend the knee at public events, but this is not a genuine expression of their loyalty. Even Kim Jong Un’s wife – Ri Sol Ju – is a daily witness to her husband’s use of intimidation and fearpolitik. She can do little but try to endure it. 
Kim Yo Jong, however, is Kim Jong Un’s younger sister shares the North Korean regime’s predominant claim to legitimacy: the so-called Mt. Paektu bloodline, a concept originating with Kim Il Sung and inextricably linked to his anti-Japan guerrilla movement. In this sense, Kim Yo Jong is different than others in the inner circle. Perhaps she feels genuine loyalty and affection for her brother from this linkage. She may the only one.