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S. Korea: Senior N. Korean diplomat based in London defects

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SEOUL — A senior North Korean diplomat based in London has defected to South Korea, becoming one of the highest North Korean officials to do so, South Korea said Wednesday.

Thae Yong Ho, minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, is in South Korea with his family and is under the protection of the South Korean government, Seoul's Unification Ministry said.

Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-Hee said Thae told South Korean officials that he decided to defect because of his disgust with the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, his yearning for South Korean democracy, and worries about the future of his children.

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Jeong said Thae was the second-highest official in North Korea's embassy and is the most senior North Korean diplomat to defect to South Korea. In 1997, the North Korean ambassador to Egypt fled but resettled in the United States.

Jeong refused to give details about Thae's defection, citing possible diplomatic problems with a concerned country he didn't identify. Britain's Foreign Office declined to comment.

The highest-level North Korean to seek asylum in South Korea is Hwang Jang-yop, a senior ruling Workers' Party official. Hwang's 1997 defection was hailed by many South Koreans as an intelligence bonanza and a sign that North Korea's political system was inferior to the South's. Hwang died in 2010.

Thae's defection will probably enrage North Korean officials, who often accuse South Korea of kidnapping or enticing North Koreans to defect.

South Korea doesn't always make high-level defection cases public. Its revelation of Thae's defection came as ties between the rivals are at one of their lowest points in decades over the North's nuclear ambitions.