A diplomat working in the London embassy of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) left his post for a third country earlier this month, South Korean media reported on Tuesday, citing an anonymous source.“A DPRK diplomat in London is going through procedures to seek asylum in a third country,” the JoongAng Ilbo said. “The DPRK Embassy made belated attempts to figure out the diplomat’s whereabouts, but has failed.”The report said the unnamed diplomat had been previously tasked with keeping track of North Korean defectors who had settled down in London’s environs, as well as regularly handling consular services.The diplomat, who was not named and alleged to have left with his wife and children, had also been requested by Pyongyang to prepare measures to counter the UK’s increasing criticism of North Korea’s human rights violations, the JoongAng said.
According to a list of diplomats provided by the UK government, excluding Ambassador Hyon Hak Bong, there are five North Korean officials working in the embassy.The diplomats who matched the JoongAng’s description can be narrowed down to Minister Thae Yong Ho and Third Secretary Ryu Kyong Jun, with the rest working in unrelated fields to consular work.Two tour industry insiders, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity in talking on the subject, said that Minister Thae was the previous and sole point-person for visa issues at the embassy.“A high-level defection, if confirmed, will be deeply embarrassing for the regime,” said John Nilsson-Wright, Head of the Asia Program at the London-based Chatham House think tank.“London has always been an important diplomatic priority for the DPRK given the amount of personnel stationed there and the considerable resources devoted by the regime to maintaining its presence there,” he said. “The intelligence benefits to the UK and its allies from such a deflection are likely to prove valuable.”Current North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, appointed this May, is the former DPRK Ambassador to London. A source familiar with North Korean foreign policy told NK News in July he maintains close relations with current Ambassador to London Hyun Hak Bong.Longtime North Korea watcher Dr. Andrei Lankov said either fears about elite purges or increased awareness of the difficulties facing the North Korean state could have prompted the development.“North Korean elites who can make a cool-headed assessment of the future of Korean peninsula may believe that the current system might fall at some time,” said Dr. Lankov. “As they are perfectly well aware of how they would be treated after the collapse, leaving before the fall is a very rational choice.”Lee Young-jong, the JoongAng journalist behind the revelation, told NK News on Tuesday he had “heard it from an anonymous source inside North Korea”.“It seems like authorities working in the South Korean government, Blue House, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs are sharing information regarding this case.”Neither the public relations offices of the Ministry of Unification and Ministry of Foreign Affairs would either confirm or deny NK News’ inquiries about the issue on Tuesday.