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It's the highest diplomatic defection from North to South Korea

Diplomat tells South Korean officials he fled for the "future of his family"

Seoul CNN  — 

A senior North Korean diplomat, along with his wife and children, has safely defected to South Korea, making it the highest-level diplomatic defection from North to South Korea in history.

Thae Yong Ho, the deputy ambassador of the North Korean embassy in the UK, is under government protection, Jeong Joo-hee, a spokesman for the South Korean Unification Ministry, told reporters Wednesday.

“For the future of his family”

Thae defected because “he was tired of Kim Jong Un’s regime. He respects the democratic system of South Korea and for the sake of the future of his family, he defected,” Jeong told reporters.

Opinion: What North Korean defections mean

The Embassy of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, was not immediately available for comment.

The UK Foreign Office told CNN it will not be commenting on Thae’s defection.

UK embassy No. 2

Thae is listed as the second-highest official after the ambassador in a diplomatic list published by the UK Foreign Office.

Thae and his family are now safely in South Korea, Jeong said, but he did not elaborate on how or when the defection took place.

“They are currently under the government’s protection and are going through necessary procedures conducted by relevant agencies, which are standard procedures,” Jeong said.

Defection not uncommon

Defections from North Korea are not uncommon. The impoverished country is known for its harsh demands of loyalty to the regime and almost complete isolation from the rest of the world.

And Pyongyang’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons has put it at odds with the international community.

The most senior diplomat to flee the regime was a former DPRK ambassador to Egypt who defected to the United States in 1997. And the highest defection to date was Hwang Jang Yob, who fled to South Korea after holding high-profile positions in the North Korea’s Worker Party. He was credited with developing the North Korean ideology of “juche,” or “self-reliance.”

According to the South Korean Unification Ministry website, 749 people defected from the North to the democratic South in the first six months of 2016.

In April, most of the serving staff of a North Korean restaurant in Ningbo, China, defected en masse to South Korea.

A spokesman for the North Korean Red Cross called that defection a “group abduction” of DPRK employees “in broad daylight,” according to DPRK state media.

Under third-generation strong-arm ruler Kim Jong Un, missile tests have become more frequent, straining relations with South Korea and the United States.