There's an implicit assumption here which is that the more exposure you have to the truth about North Korea the more likely you are to defect.

With that assumption out in the open, my question is about the North Korean diplomats who live abroad around the world. Presumably it's difficult for North Korea to prevent them absorbing information and media from the outside world. Perhaps their computers are connected to the (unrestricted) internet, or they can use computers outside the embassy.

Do we know whether defection from embassies is a problem for North Korea? Do we know whether North Korea implements any measures to prevent it? Is it not a problem because my assumption at the top is incorrect?

  • 67
    If you were a well-to-do diplomat with a good health care plan, would you defect so that you could work at 7-11, struggle to make ends meet, and have poor access to doctors? The people sent over seas are elites - and they are accustomed to living well. Changing to a jobless immigrant would require a real motivation. Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 19:32
  • 12
    Besides the preventative measures mentioned in the answers, I suspect they try to select only very loyal people to be diplomats, so they're less likely to be swayed.
    – Barmar
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 23:05
  • 51
    I guess having a beloveed family in North Korea dramatically reduces the temptation for defecting...
    – Neinstein
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 8:34
  • 9
    @gerrit Lots of people study the DPRK. Lots of people visit and manage to smuggle information out. People defect and speak to the West. I think "unknowable" is a bit of a stretch.
    – thosphor
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 10:55
  • 11
    Your implicit assumption is obviously wrong. Do the exposure about the truth of workers abuse among high-level managers make them defect capitalism? Apparently not, because they are those, who profit from that abuse. Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 20:07

6 Answers 6


There have been a few high-profile ambassadors who did actually defect, the highest being the deputy ambassador in London in 2016. As user4012's answer speculated, the regime does hold family members hostage. From the article:

North Korean diplomats generally must leave one member of their immediate family in Pyongyang — the regime’s insurance against defections — and it was not clear whether Thae had managed to take all of his family with him.

I remember hearing a snippet of an interview recently, where he talked about this, as well.


I can't answer about North Korea (as nobody really has much visibility into how they operate), but it's known and clear how other countries (like USSR) did it in the past. It's a combination of:

  1. One's family being hostage. If a person defects, their family WILL suffer, and they know it. Oh, and having a family to make suffer is more likely than not a pre-requisite for such a post.

  2. Benefits of being a big fish in a little pond.

    One thing that needs to be recognized in reality is, very often people at the top in a dictatorship live VERY good lives (either as absolute, or — more important to human psychology — compared to the Joneses down the street).

  • 13
    I'm not sure if this is fact or a repetition of the cold war propaganda we heard in our youth. Do you have citations for these broad claims about hostages? Or were you personally in a situation like this from the USSR? Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 19:33
  • 23
    In Viktor Survorov's Inside Soviet Military Intelligence, I think it was, he claimed Soviet spies were only sent abroad if they were middle aged with family - that way they were far less reckless than younger peers, both because of age and because of the family back home. There's other similarities between Soviet and North Korean operations, like running legitimate companies in outside nations to generate and launder money. Considering the entire North Korean system is based on Stalinism, similarities should be unsurprising.
    – user8398
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 20:38
  • 16
    @axsvl77 - since I heard about it in Soviet media, I strongly suspect it wasn't Western anti-US propaganda.
    – user4012
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 1:04
  • 27
    @axsvl77 : My father was a English biologist who had a Russian biologist come to visit. He stayed with my family, and my mother (somewhat thoughtlessly) suggested "next time you must bring your wife with you". The reply was a quiet "that would not be possible". Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 12:15
  • 11
    @axsvl77 "Hostage" is a rather dramatic term. Even without any imprisonment or threats, "We're not letting your wife leave the country: if you don't come back, you'll never see her again" is a fairly powerful incentive to return. Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 16:29

It's impossible to know for sure, but it likely has to do with family. North Korea enforces a "three generations of punishment" rule. It's not a stretch to imagine the regime going after your extended family if you're a diplomat and defect.

  • 1
    they would probably face s similair fate to that of Kim Jong Nam also
    – Charlie
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 15:13
  • 4
    @Charlie: That's doubtful unless they're a potential threat to the Kim Jong Un. Kim Jong Nam had reasonable claims to the throne, so to speak. Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 15:15
  • 3
    I think he was actually older than Kim Jong In, but refused to take the throne. I think the danger was more in that he would have been such a high profile defector that his influence would have been very detrimental.
    – Charlie
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 15:17
  • @Charlie Not to mention the threat of a foreign power using him in coup attempt, whether or not he intended to do that sort of thing willingly or not.
    – Dent7777
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 19:26
  • 18
    @Charlie Using members of royal families as figureheads, installed after a coup, is time-tested method.
    – Dent7777
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 19:39

There are multiple layers of the security.


The North Korean diplomats are privileged members of the North Korean society, typically since generations. The aren't suppressed, they belong to the suppressors.

And, getting the option to work in foreign countries, is one of the greatest rewards in their life. If they defect, they would betray it.

Social filtering

  1. There is a very complex system of hidden informers of the security police.
  2. Everybody has file by them generations back.
  3. Only the people with the best papers can get ever chance to work in foreign countries.


It is not only in North Korea, this part is being done in all countries of the world. Working on an embassy, is not a job what one could do until retirement. They are periodically rotated, after maybe 2-4 years, all of them has to go.

"Democratic" countries do this typically with the (typically) 4 year long election cycle synchronously.

The goal is to avoid that a too strong bound between the diplomat and the receiving country would be built up.

Close family members remain as hostages

Everybody has at least one, but possibly more family member who can't ever leave the country. If a diplomat would escape, the system would get a revenge on them, any they know it.

Defectors will be hunted down

Kim Jong Un has let to kill his own cousin... being a North Korean diplomat, it would be a very clear signature, what could I await in the case of defecting.

The important thing is that not only a single "wall" is there. The human mind is a complex thing, and (for the greatest luck of the Humanity) not even a totalitarian dictatorship has really control over it. If only a single precaution would be applied, some of the diplomats would defect.

The trick is that there are multiple "defense walls", while already a single one would be enough for most people.

Despite that, some of the diplomats, yes, defect, but it is rare.

Yes, these defectors let the System to get revenge on their family members.

May God be merciful for us, never get into such decision situation.

  • 3
    This is a pretty good answer, +1. Too bad it's a few days after the "rush" so probably won't get tons of votes
    – Xen2050
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 7:22

This is more of a general answer about how dictatorships prevent defection and I borrow this real spy defector as an example:

  • Plant stories of defectors being caught, killed and (or) tortured, even if fake. For instance, if a dictator knows someone is a threat, he can have them become a diplomat as a cover to others, but actually terminate them. He can later state he caught them defecting by other spies overseas, which makes diplomats scared.
  • As others have mentioned, threaten people who are close to the diplomat, such as immediate and extended family or close friends. Since many dictatorships engage in intense surveillance of their citizens, it's obvious who everyone is close to.
  • Notice that Bezmenov admits that he lived a very comfortable lifestyle. This is not what most of us think when we think of the Soviet Union at all! Dictatorships tend to favor people in military over the population. We can see the same in Venezuela - the military lives a much higher standard of living.
  • Use propaganda on spies. Bezmenov realized that most of what he heard was lies, but some people actually believe those lies and see only the flaws in other systems. When we stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back.

If you have time, it's an interesting video about living under a dictatorship and a lot of the information surprised me.


Don't forget that death is also a good deterrent. Assassination - even years later - isn't unheard of.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .