So there is a reason for countries to host North Korean embassies after all. Sure, rather than the spade work of actual diplomacy, North Korea's "diplomats" use their embassies to export counterfeit cash, go on illegal shopping sprees for their leader, and issue terrifying threats against defectors. But it turns out that the embassies have at least one salutary function: They can serve as an escape hatch for elites determined to flee the regime.
The Joongang Ilbo had the scoop Tuesday. A North Korean diplomat, then unnamed, based in London, had defected. On Wednesday, it emerged that the defector was Thae Yan-ho, the country's deputy ambassador to Great Britain. According to the Guardian, Thae served a chilling function at the embassy. He "was to keep track of North Korean defectors living in London," the newspaper reports. He also had the thankless task of " rebutting UK criticism of his country's human rights record," a job that would likely spur even the most stalwart defender of the regime to consider new career options.
Thae was able to defect with his wife and son. Many who flee are not so fortunate in this regard, given that the regime often holds the family members of North Koreans abroad back in North Korea, lest the travelers be tempted to defect. (This is typically the case for North Korea's large class of slave laborers, who work abroad to raise funds for the regime.)
There have been several high-profile defections from North Korea recently. A Workers' Party official fled while working in Russia earlier this year. Another North Korean diplomat, this one based in Thailand, also managed to escape within the last two years.
All told, told, the defections call into question Kim Jong-un's strategy of placating the political elite with bread and circuses—water parks, department stores, hamburgers—while refusing even a scintilla of political liberalization. It seems that for some diplomats, a ride in a water slide hardly makes up for constant surveillance, and the very real fear of ending up in a hellish labor camp. And being stationed abroad as a diplomat provided a chance for freedom.
Maybe we should allow a North Korean embassy in Washington after all?