Wife of North Korean Diplomat: From Pyongyang to Seoul Seeking Freedom for Kids
“I can see your son has a bright future ahead of him,” a schoolteacher in London told Oh Hye Son.
Oh, 55, is the wife of Thae Yong Ho, a member of the South Korean National Assembly. He defected from North Korea with Oh and their sons in 2016 while serving as the deputy ambassador to the U.K.
The teacher’s comments about the couple’s younger son, Kum Hyok, brought Oh to tears. Her husband, Thae, was a counselor at the North Korean Embassy in London, a post he held from 2004 to 2008.
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“There was no bright future for him in North Korea when we return,” Oh recalled thinking at the time about her then-third grader. Oh returned to Pyongyang with her husband, younger son, and elder son Ju Hyok when the government summoned them in 2008.
Oh spoke with the VOA Korean Service on February 3 at the Korea Press Center in Seoul soon after the release in South Korea of her memoir, A Pyongyang Woman from London. The book traces her life as an elite member of North Korean society in Pyongyang and London before the family defected, and Seoul, where she has been living since the family defected. The book is available only in Korean.
Back in Pyongyang
The decision to defect came about slowly, with Oh asking herself, “When did North Korea go wrong?” during her family’s time in London.
Upon the family’s return to Pyongyang, Oh enrolled Kum Hyok in a school attended by children from wealthy families who bribed teachers for good grades, according to Oh.
Schoolyard bullies targeted Kum Hyok, who returned home with a knife stuck in his thigh after one brawl, his mother recalled.
“I thought it’d be difficult for my kids to live in North Korea with a normal, healthy state of mind,” Oh said. “I made a decision then that I didn’t want to come back to North Korea if we had a chance to leave next time.”
They returned to London in 2013 when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs assigned Thae to the North Korean Embassy as its deputy ambassador, a promotion from his previous posting.
Over time, during their pre-dinner routine strolls in London, Oh persisted in telling Thae why they needed to flee. She told him she would rather die than return to North Korea.
For several years, Thae remained silent, but then he asked Oh, “Are you sure you want to defect? You won’t miss your mother?”
Oh responded, “Later, the children will resent us not taking a chance.”
She continued, “I told him that I can leave North Korea and risk being cut off from my family as long as our kids can have freedom.”
Oh, Thae and their two sons defected in 2016. At the time, Thae told South Korean officials one of the reasons he defected was due to concern over his children’s future.
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Oh came from an elite family in North Korea. She is related to Oh Paek Ryong, who fought against the Japanese occupying army in the 1930s alongside Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founding leader and the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un.
That kind of family history guarantees a privileged life in North Korea.
“When I lived in my father’s house, we received food like … cooking oil, eggs and sugar each month,” Oh said. “But common people didn’t receive them.”
Thae, however, came from an ordinary family. With high scores on college entrance exams, he gained admission to the prestigious Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, where Oh also matriculated. He continued his education at Beijing Foreign Studies University and rose through the ranks of North Korea’s diplomatic corps.
Oh’s marriage to Thae changed her life.
“When I came to live with Thae’s family after marriage, rice was the only ration that the family received,” she said. “There was no oil, no candy, no snacks. People might ask what difference did that make? But I felt a lot of difference.”
When a hairdryer she brought from her father’s house broke, Thae’s family did not have access to the U.S. currency needed to buy a hairdryer, an item that was imported as North Korea did not manufacture them.
Oh spotted wild ginseng in a cupboard at Thae’s family home, took it to one of the few stores that dealt in foreign currency, sold the prized root, and with the $50 she received, bought a Toshiba hairdryer for $40.
“I was so upset because I couldn’t buy it with money my husband earned,” said Oh.
While it was difficult to live as an ordinary North Korean, Oh said her concept of “elite” changed when she went to South Korea and realized that by comparison, “North Korea’s standard of living is so low.”
When she saw how South Korean women lived, she realized they had more rights than she had imagined.
“North Korean policy says it guarantees women’s rights,” Oh said. “But in reality, women face disadvantages in society and at home.”
Oh said women are the main breadwinners in North Korea as men must work for the regime for low wages paid in currency or rations.
Women meet household needs by selling and buying goods — homemade items and household necessities imported or smuggled from China — at the market, she said. “All economic activities are led by women,” she added, describing the situation before pandemic border closures that further limited trade with China.
Outsiders looking in
Oh said scholars from South Korea and elsewhere who study North Korea at times describe the country inaccurately because they lack direct experience there.
Oh supports her husband in advocating for the South Korean government to lift its ban on North Korea’s government-controlled media.
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“The South Korean public are capable of discerning what’s true or fake,” said Oh. “They will come to realize North Korea is a place where people cannot live.”
Oh said North Korea is often better understood by those outside South Korea who have greater access to information about the Pyongyang regime.
To dispel misconceptions about North Korea, Oh decided to write her book.
“I wanted to tell the truth because I lived it.”
Oh said that while living in London, a city with a large community of North Korean defectors, she secretly envied those who protested in front of the embassy where her husband worked.
“I don’t envy them anymore,” said Oh. “I have freedom now. I can change anything through my will and efforts. I can have dreams.”
Published on 2023-02-10