High-profile defection: Why a North Korean diplomat family chose freedom

Born into an elite North Korean family with ties to the ruling dynasty, Oh Hye Son grew up believing she was “special,” but then got a taste of freedom overseas and decided to defect

High-profile defection: Why a North Korean diplomat family chose freedom

Born into an elite North Korean family with ties to the ruling dynasty, Oh Hye Son grew up believing she was “special,” but then got a taste of freedom overseas and decided to defect.

Most of the tens of thousands of North Koreans fleeing repression and poverty have faced a perilous journey across the land border between their country and China, where they face arrest and possible deportation.

The defection of Ms Oh's family was less dangerous, but just as heartbreaking: it convinced her husband Thae Yong Ho, then North Korea's deputy ambassador to London, to give up their privileged status for the sake of their children.

"I never wanted to go back to North Korea and wondered why North Koreans had to live such a hard life," she told AFP in an interview in Seoul, where she now lives.

Years of postings across Europe - to Denmark, Sweden and Britain - exposed the family to a different life, she says, adding that when she first arrived in London, she thought: "If heaven exists, it must be here".

Ms Oh, who recently posted an account in Korean recounting her defection, was once part of North Korea's aristocracy.

She is the descendant of a famous general who fought the Japanese alongside leader Kim Il Sung in the 1930s.

Despite this impeccable lineage, she always "lived in fear of power", she explains. "No one except the Kim family had privileges, and when my children learned about freedom and democracy by living abroad, I realized there was no privilege. had no future for them in North Korea."

Thae Juhyok, Ms Oh's eldest son, suffered from chronic health conditions including nephrotic syndrome, a condition which can lead to life-threatening kidney problems if left untreated.

It was virtually impossible to get this treatment in Pyongyang's crumbling healthcare system - one of the worst in the world - where doctors had to be bribed all the time and essential medicines were in short supply.

Ms Oh remembers her family moving to London in 2004 and gaining access to the National Health Service as an eye-opener.

Her son was soon able to get free treatment at one of the city's top hospitals, she says, adding that her children have also been educated in British schools, where they have settled in well.

"The children grew up so well in England, in a society that respected them," she says.

The contrast to life in Pyongyang, where they returned in 2008 after her husband's first assignment in London ended, was stark.

Juhyok attended Pyongyang Medical University. But instead of studying, he was put to work on a construction site transporting cement, says Ms Oh.

North Korea faces labor shortages in all economic sectors and it is common for the government to order students and even schoolchildren to do backbreaking manual labor as a sign of loyalty.

If one of them does not comply, the government withdraws their food rations or imposes taxes on them, according to the 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report published by the US State Department.

When her children raised overseas began to question the corruption and injustice they were witnessing in North Korea, Ms. Oh realized it would be impossible for them to fully integrate into North Korean society. .

"They had completely different values," she says. "That's when I started to think that if I had the opportunity to go abroad again, I wouldn't come back."

Opportunity presented itself to Mrs Oh when her husband was posted back to London. She then convinced him to defect because she didn't want his children "to blame him later".

She had hoped the North Korean regime would crumble after the death of Kim Jong Il, the father and predecessor of current leader Kim Jong Un, and was devastated when her son extended the ruling dynasty into a third generation. .

"In North Korea, we existed - from morning till night - for the sake of the Kim family," recalls Ms. Oh.

Her husband Thae Yong Ho became the first defector to be elected to South Korea's parliament, where he is now a prominent member of the ruling conservative People's Power Party.

Although she loves her new life in Seoul, Ms Oh remains haunted by memories of her mother and siblings left behind in North Korea, which is notorious for punishing relatives of defectors.

Besides, she can't hear from them: Civil contact is forbidden between the two Koreas, even though some defectors use intermediaries to smuggle Chinese cellphones across the border.

Ms Oh was unable to contact her relatives, but she once caught a glimpse of her brother-in-law in 2018. He was then part of an official North Korean delegation visiting Seoul on a rare occasion. diplomatic opening.

It gave him hope that those close to him had not suffered the purges of the Kim regime following his family's flight.

"Will they be mad at me? Will they envy me? Or will they silently cheer me on?" she wonders, wiping away her tears.

01/03/2023 17:21:03 - Seoul (AFP) © 2023 AFP