By James Pearson
SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea's deputy ambassador in London has defected with his family, according to media reports, which if confirmed would make it 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.
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.
Among his many responsibilities, Thae was well-known to the British press, acting as the embassy's main point of contact for British correspondents traveling to Pyongyang.
The British Embassy in Seoul said it was aware of the reports of a defection but would not comment. South Korea's foreign ministry said it could not confirm or discuss specific defection cases.
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency said it had no comment on the reports.
Thae lived at or near the North Korean embassy, which is in the leafy west London suburb of Gunnersbury. He spoke regularly at far-left events in London, including meetings of a British communist party where he would make impassioned speeches in defense of North Korea, according to videos of the events.
His measured tone was in contrast to the bombastic rhetoric often used by Pyongyang officials, although at some events he sang revolutionary Red Army Choir songs in Korean.
In regular contact with the media, Thae also spoke publicly about media coverage of the isolated country, including the press appetite for sensationalist stories about North Korea.
"I don't blame reporters," Thae said during a speech at a left-wing London bookshop in late 2014. "If they broadcast (North Korea) as it is, the editors of these TV stations and newspapers will (change it)".
"The more horrifying, the more shocking stories they create, the more they will be viewed by the British public".
(Addtional reporting by Ju-min Park in SEOUL, Mike Holden in LONDON and John Walcott in WASHINGTON; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)