The Thae Yong-ho Interviews



This blog has always championed defectors and refugees, partly for the insight that they can bring into the country (see Marc Noland’s note on the suspension of refugee screening). We now have a whole set of interviews given by Thae Yong-ho, former Deputy Ambassador to Great Britain. You can’t believe everything he says about the vulnerability of the regime. But he is clearly emerging as a photogenic, English-speaking champion of outright regime change, a perfect example of the role that defectors and refugees can play. And his policy line is clear: give no quarter.

Quite naturally, the interviews focus on the personal dimensions of Thae’s defection, but the question is of broader significance since it touches on why high-ranking officials might risk leaving. Thae claims that what broke him was not just the observation of life abroad, including his observation of European democracy during a posting in Denmark during the great famine. What finally mattered was the perception that Kim Jong Un was not going to move in a new direction and that the regime would simply continue as it had in the past. Expectations had been raised and then dashed. One of the more interesting tidbits had to do with discussions with his high-school aged son, who started to innocently ask questions about North Korea: “why North Korea doesn’t allow the Internet, why North Koreans are not allowed to watch foreign films, why North Koreans can’t read any books they want.” (Fifield interview at the Washington Post). “As a father, it was hard for me to tell lies, and it started a debate within the family,” Thae said. “This North Korean system is a really inhuman system. It even abuses the love between parents and their children.”

On Kim Jong Un, Thae believes that the New Year’s Speech marked a subtle shift in the regime’s legitimation strategy. From being a God, Thae argues that Kim Jong Un made an effort to portray himself as an accountable God with the interests of the people at heart. Yet Thae believes that the consolidation of power is not complete and that more executions could be forthcoming in 2017.  

What about policy? Thae’s reflections are mixed. On the one hand, he says in one interview that “North Korean people consider Barack Obama’s strategic patience a ‘tactical disregard.’ The U.S. sits by and watches the North conducting nuclear and missile test believing the country will collapse. (Strategic patience) was ‘a quite favorable condition’ for the North.” On the other hand, he does believe that sanctions have effect, and not simply materially but by showing the limits of the regime’s current strategy. In a passing comment in the Arirang interview he noted how two state commissions set up to promote foreign direct investment ultimately had to be shut down because of lack of business.

On one point, Thae is clear: that the regime has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons. He slams ideas for a freeze as simply proving to the regime that it can have its cake and eat it too. Thae sees efforts at engagement—which he identifies as coming mostly from Democrats--as having the net effect of acknowledging North Korea’s status as a nuclear power. He thus welcomes what he expects to be a harder line under President Trump.

What are the points of leverage? In line with the “information optimism” of Jieun Baek, Thae believes that getting information in is crucial to turning minds and particularly into Pyongyang and in the military. He portrays Pyongyang as polarized between political and economic haves and have nots and does not rule out mass upheaval from below. Thae thinks that if the regime continues on the current course—even with Chinese support—it has five years tops. Dave Kang issues a pointed rebuttal on Twitter, reminding us that we have seen such predictions before. 

Whatever we make of any particular claim, the interesting issue to watch will be how and whether Thae’s voice plays into the debate over strategy in the South. For those hoping for a validation of engagement, Thae is decidedly not their man. Let's hope above all that he can stay safe: he is precisely the kind of defector that North Korea does not want to see making the rounds.

Thae Yong-ho Interviews:

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