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(3rd LD) Ranking N. Korean diplomat defects to S. Korea: Seoul

All Headlines 21:01 August 17, 2016

(ATTN: REWRITES lead; UPDATES with more info, background throughout; ADDS photo)

SEOUL, Aug. 17 (Yonhap) -- A senior North Korean diplomat stationed in Britain has defected, Seoul's unification ministry said Wednesday, becoming one of the highest-level officials from the communist country to seek a new life in South Korea.

Thae Yong-ho, a minister at the North's embassy in London, has recently arrived in South Korea with his family, the Ministry of Unification said, without unveiling further details.

"They are now under the Seoul government's protection and relevant institutions are proceeding with necessary procedures," Jeong Joon-hee, ministry spokesman, said at a hastily arranged press conference.

Thae, previously known to have sought asylum in a third country, is among the highest ranking North Korean diplomats who have defected to Seoul, the ministry said. The 55-year-old Thae, the No. 2 man at the embassy, was known to be in charge of promoting North Korea's regime in Britain.

The rare defection by an elite member of North Korean society came after the U.N. Security Council slapped tougher sanctions on Pyongyang in March for its nuclear test in January and long-range rocket launch the following month.

Jeong said that Thae is believed to have defected to Seoul due to his disillusionment with the North's regime under Kim Jong-un and aspiration for freedom.

"This case shows that North Korean elites view that there is no hope in their country," the spokesman said. "It also indicates that North Korea's regime's internal solidarity is weakening."

Thae's defection is widely expected to anger the North's leader, who has been strengthening his reign of terror by killing numerous government and military officials since taking power in late 2011, analysts said.

"At the position to promote North Korea, Thae might have been under high pressure as his country is facing tougher international sanctions," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute.

A source familiar with the matter said that unspecified number of North Korean diplomats have defected to South Korea since last year.

North Korean officials and workers at foreign countries are hard pressed to repatriate money in the face of tougher international sanctions, and this is exerting considerable pressure.

In April, a group of 13 North Koreans who worked at a Pyongyang-run restaurant in the Chinese eastern port city of Ningbo, defected to South Korea en masse. In June, three more North Korean restaurant employees working in China escaped to Seoul.

Pyongyang has often accused South Korea of abducting its people when Seoul made public a prominent defection by North Koreans.

About 815 North Koreans defected to South Korea in the first seven months of this year, up 15.6 percent from the same period a year earlier, according to government data.

The accumulated number of North Koreans fleeing to South Korea is expected to surpass the 30,000 mark by late this year.

kokobj@yna.co.kr

sooyeon@yna.co.kr
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