Prominent Defections in 2016: How North and South Korea Responded
In North and South Korea alike, scant regard is paid to the humanitarian significance of the defection phenomenon. One frequently, and frustratingly, finds instead the dead weight of geopolitics alongside a parochial devotion to local concerns on the moral margins of the issue.
In his debut essay for Sino-NK, Tom Fowdy looks back at 2016, when two major defection incidents made headlines around the world. The first was the escape of thirteen restaurant workers from Ningbo in the spring, the second the summertime departure of that debonair former deputy in North Korea’s unassuming diplomatic outpost in London, Thae Yong-ho. As usual, pre-eminent on both sides of the DMZ was the need to score the requisite geopolitical points. — Christopher Green, Co-editor
Editor’s note (October 17, 2019): Subsequent to the publication of this essay, its author began working as a columnist for China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency. For the avoidance of doubt, Sino-NK does not receive funding from the Chinese government.
Prominent Defections in 2016: How North and South Korea Responded
by Tom Fowdy
One day after news broke of the defection of Thae Yong-ho on August 18, 2016, a senior North Korean diplomat in London, papers in Seoul had their angle clear. As an editorial from the Korea Joongang Daily put it, “The unimaginable defection of a member of the communist aristocracy could shake the very foundation of the dictatorship.” This was hardly anomalous; Thae’s defection led to a series of claims in both South Korean media and government that a defection like his was unprecedented, arguing for a maximalist interpretation of what it portended for regime stability in Pyongyang. As the Korea Joongang Daily editorial continued, “Thae defected to Seoul due to his disillusionment with the North’s regime under the incumbent leader and aspiration for freedom.”
Although the most significant, Thae was just one of a series of high profile defections from North Korea in 2016. Yonhap reported a sixteen percent year-on-year increase in defections, amidst claims that the number of those leaving from the “elite” social classification had also increased. With this in mind, this article seeks to illustrate how the administration of President Park Geun-hye incorporated the defections into wider political narratives and understandings, where they are held to represent evidence they by being assertive and “tough” on North Korea, Seoul acquired the upper hand and pushed the North to the verge of collapse.
It will be also illustrated that Pyongyang was hardly a passive recipient or observer of these narratives. North Korea puts forth vigorous responses to narratives about defection, aiming at a range of goals; from deflecting specific stories put forward by defectors to trying to lure them back home by showing “re-defectors” or family members on camera. In 2016, Pyongyang utilized “scorched earth” policies of abuse or belligerence alongside tacit means of downplaying or reducing the political significance of defections; heightened criticism of the Park administration, greater focus on “re-defectors” to the North disillusioned with life in the South, family pleas on television and the more conventional style of publicly libeling those who defect. Above all, although seeking to discredit the other, the narratives established by both Korean states were domestically orientated, intended to consolidate and strengthen local support.
Park Geun-hye’s North Korea policy | The Park Geun-hye administration’s initial approach, “Trustpolik” had long lost momentum and significance, failing to transcend mere rhetoric. Following the 2016 North Korean nuclear test, Park Geun-hye took an increasingly hardline approach involving unilateral sanctions, diplomatic pressure towards allies of the DPRK, the controversial closure of the Kaesong Industrial complex, and a willingness to deploy the THAAD missile defense system to Korean territory.
Park’s rhetoric “towards” the DPRK warned that North Korea faces “regime collapse” if it continued with its nuclear program. It is plausible that this was aimed purely at a domestic audience, especially considering Park’s declining popularity and the impending 2017 presidential election. This reveals the wider logic behind the South Korean government’s policy choices.
Several months later, thirteen North Korean restaurant workers in China defected. The group was known as the “Ningbo 13”. The Ministry of Unification emphasized that the incident was “unprecedented.” In a concurrent response, the North accused South Korean government of “kidnap,” and claimed that the waitresses were on “hunger strike” in protest and demanding to be returned home.
In the run up to ROK legislative elections, the South Korean ministry of unification announced that a colonel had defected from the DPRK, as had an unnamed North Korean diplomat in Africa. What was particularly notable was that the announcement of both defections had been held back for a year, but were released following the Ningbo 13. Consequentially, the Ministry of Unification then claimed that the “North’s leadership is unstable.” Arguably, the defections were being announced to correspond such with wider political narrative thrusts.
When May arrived, more North Korean restaurant workers defected, which was followed up by a statement that “the country is becoming more unstable under the leadership of Kim Jong-un.” There was the additional claim that “sanctions” and the nuclear test had been the primary motive for the defections. Notably, the announcement came just days before the 7th Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party.
Thae Young-ho and Park Geun-hye’s invitation | In August, the most notable defection was that of Thae Young-ho, which also attracted the strongest political reaction from both sides. Following Thae’s defection, Yonhap news provided extensive commentary in the following days. This first included an attempt to link sanctions against North Korea with elite-level defections. Then, the next day, it argued that sanctions and “encouraging defections” were the best method of “cracking open” the regime. Thae’s motives were coated in terms such as “democracy”, “disillusionment”, and “freedom”.
North Korea’s response was mixed. There was an international response that made allegations against Thae, but KCNA and Rodong Sinmun remained predictably silent in other respects. What was notable was an increased number of articles criticizing Park Geun-hye. These attempted to sow discord on the THAAD issue whilst simultaneously making false claims that South Korea had “shelled” the DPRK . The responses were certainly not aimed at responding to the global narrative against the DPRK, but rather focused on limiting the political damage among the domestic population, inducing fear, cynicism and anger towards the Park administration, and discouraging and distracting from the news of his defection.
With Thae’s defection in mind, Park Geun-hye sought to strengthen South Korean narratives further. On October 1st, she made a notable speech encouraging North Koreans to defect to the South. During the speech, she perpetuated the narrative that “defections were increasing.” The speech was likely again tuned to domestic needs rather than being a serious attempt at reaching out to North Koreans.
Conclusion | What was notable about the rhetoric of both Korean states during this period was the inseparability of their narratives to domestic political agendas. Park Geun-hye sought to consolidate support by appearing assertive on the DPRK, using defections as a political tool to prove the success of her administration’s policy, many announcements having been politically timed. Likewise, the DPRK regime was concerned with saving face among informed groups in Pyongyang and discouraging defection. This was accomplished through intense criticism of the Park regime, falsifying stories of military tensions to invoke fear, and returning to a familiar theme of promoting “re-defectors” in state media.
Since the events of this article, Park Geun-hye has been discredited through scandal, mass protests and finally impeached. With the 2017 election looming on May 9, it remains unclear how future administrations will relate to or discontinue these established narratives, with some candidates leaning to pro-engagement positions and others staying the containment course. The stage is set for a new president and a new North Korea policy, to say nothing of potential change in the ROK-US alliance with the Donald Trump presidency.