SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s newest celebrity took an unusual route to the nation’s TV screens - years spent working his way up through the ranks of North Korea’s diplomatic corps, followed by months secluded in the custody of the rival South’s spy agency.
Since his release Thae Yong Ho, the former North Korean deputy ambassador to London, has spent the first week of the new year speaking on South Korean variety shows, joking with fellow defectors and espousing South Korea’s line that the North Korean government he once defended is unstable and doomed to fail.
In a further propaganda coup for Seoul, the gregarious Thae, newly granted South Korean citizenship following his high-profile August defection, is embracing life in the capitalist South as a public figure.
On a talk show called “Now On My Way to Meet You”, which features young, usually female, defectors from the isolated North, a video interview between Thae and a panelist was introduced as a chat with the “British gentleman-like Thae Yong Ho”.
The 54-year-old Thae spoke of some of his motivations for switching sides between rivals that remain technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean war ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
“On the day we left the embassy and stepped outside, I told my children, from this moment on, as a father, I am breaking you free from your shackles,” Thae said on another show. “Now it’s up to you”.
Thae is the highest-ranking official to have fled North Korea for the South since the 1997 defection of Hwang Jong Yop, the brains behind North Korea’s governing ideology, which combines Marxism with extreme nationalism.
By contrast, Hwang made very few public appearances and lived in constant fear of assassination until he was found dead in his bathtub - from natural causes - 13 years later.
His fears were not without some foundation - the year he arrived in South Korea another prominent defector, Yi Han Yong, was shot dead by suspected North Korean assassins, and shortly after Hwang died South Korean authorities said they had arrested an agent of Pyongyang who had been planning to kill him.
During his years in the South, Hwang was extremely cautious in public. Surrounded by security staff, he was reported to never touch a glass of water put in front of him at an event.
“The fundamental difference is that Thae is just more laid-back and arguably less self-important,” said Michael Madden, a U.S.-based expert on the North Korean leadership.
“That might be due to Hwang’s background as a philosophy professor and senior ideology official, whereas Thae was more of a schmoozer.”
Thae, who remains under the protection of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), said he does not fear for his safety in South Korea, and works at an NIS think-tank that employs many elite former North Koreans.
When Thae’s defection was announced, the South Korean government said he had fled over dissatisfaction with the rule of Kim Jong Un.
But he also had two university-age sons living with him and his wife in London, where one had earned a place at a prestigious college.
“We can’t send our boys back to North Korea,” Thae quoted his wife as saying in one recorded interview with a panel show.
Relations between North and South Korea have been especially strained in recent years, with Seoul making renewed efforts to put pressure on Pyongyang’s diplomatic allies.
A spokesman for the NIS told Reuters it could not comment on any official future plans that may involve Thae.
There are other well-known North Korean defectors who speak English and have international book deals.
Many hail from rural areas bordering China and brought heart-wrenching stories of victimhood and escape.
Thae, however, is from Pyongyang’s elite, speaks near-perfect English with a British accent, and is known to be charming, urbane and charismatic.
“Thae has huge potential in terms of being a defector spokesman and icon,” said Sokeel Park of LiNK, an organization working with defectors.
During an interview with broadcaster MBN, Thae was asked about the difference between North and South Korean TV studios.
“Media control is especially strict. When someone shows up at a studio, questions and answers are agreed upon in advance, and a few practice sessions are filmed before the whole thing is reviewed by the propaganda department”.
Daily life in North Korea at times resembles a scripted TV set, Thae said.
On a show featuring defectors called the “Moranbong Club”, Thae said he had watched the program when he was working as a diplomat in London after searching “North Korea”, in Korean, on YouTube.
He said he had recognized another defector panelist on the show, which typically pays its participants for appearances.
“I told my family that I used to do night shifts with this man!” Thae said, gesturing toward Han Jin-myeong, who replied that Thae, who outranked him at Pyongyang’s foreign ministry, had sworn at him at the time for not doing his duty properly.
Producers then used visual effects to superimpose North Korean military uniforms on both men.
“Why did you swear at him?” the presenter asked.
“I can’t say here!,” said Thae, laughing.
Additional reporting by Yun Hwan Chae; Editing by Tony Munroe and Alex Richardson