In a move that will rile Pyongyang, a deputy ambassador of North Korea in London has defected with his family.
Reuters quoting media reports, said the envoy’s defection, if confirmed, would be one of the most high-profile defections in recent years from the increasingly isolated country.
South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported on Tuesday that a high-profile diplomat in the UK defected with his wife and son to a “third country”.
The BBC named the defector as veteran diplomat Thae Yong Ho, a counselor at the North Korean embassy and deputy to the ambassador.
Thae was well-known to the British press, acting as the embassy’s main point of contact for British correspondents traveling to Pyongyang.
Quoting an unnamed source, JoongAng Ilbo said the diplomat embarked on a defection journey “following a scrupulous plan” and was in the process of “landing in a third country as an asylum seeker.”
It was not clear from the newspaper report whether the third country was the UK. The term is usually used in South Korean media to refer to a country which is neither North nor South Korea.
An official at the North Korean embassy in London would not confirm the defection, describing reports of the event as “quite sudden”.
“If it is appropriate to give a response, then you might hear about our response,” the official told Reuters.
Further calls to the embassy went unanswered. Calls to Thae’s mobile phone were redirected to a voicemail inbox.
Thae’s reported defection follows a string of recent such flights by North Koreans, including twelve waitresses at a North Korean restaurant in China who defected to South Korea earlier this year.
Those waitresses have finished a prolonged period of investigation and will soon enter into normal society, an official at South Korea’s Unification Ministry said on Wednesday.
The number of defections by North Koreans to the South has totaled 814 up to and including July this year, an annual increase of 15 percent, a Unification Ministry official told Reuters.
Overall, the number of defectors, mostly from the area near North Korea’s border with China, has declined since leader Kim Jong Un took power following his father’s death in late 2011.
“The bigger picture is that while there have been fewer total defections per year under Kim Jong Un, there have been a higher number of strategically significant and political defections,” said Sokeel Park of LiNK, an NGO which works with North Korean defectors.