Lessons from an elite defector

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Lessons from an elite defector


Chang Se-jeong
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

There are two North Koreas according to Thae Yong-ho, the prominent North Korean diplomat who defected to the South in 2016. One is North Korea as is, and the other is a North Korea created by the South. Because of restricted access to information and limits in research capacity, it is still hard to understand North Korea. To clear the air, the JoongAng Ilbo and JTBC hosted a Q&A session with Thae on Tuesday. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q. Is North Korea predictable?

. No country is as predictable as North Korea. North Korea never leaves disadvantageous documents behind and makes critical statements.

North Korea values writing. When its foreign ministry denounced U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for “gangster-style” behavior, it cited the trust-building clause from the June 12 statement with Donald Trump. The U.S. State Department could not refute a single line.

How does North Korea use the “China card” in relations with South Korea and the United States?

Because North Korea is a small country, it thinks it can use China to stir South Korea and the United States to its advantage. In the past and present, North Korea’s tactic has been the same. Right before the April 27 inter-Korean summit at Panmunjom, Kim Jong-un ran to China and met with Xi Jinping. He created the impression that a big deal was being made between North Korea and China. He used the China card to make South Korea nervous.


Thae Yong-ho, who served as North Korea’s deputy ambassador in the United Kingdom before defecting to the South in 2016, speaks to a group of JoongAng Ilbo and JTBC reporters on Tuesday in central Seoul. [KANG HYE-RAN]

What do North Korea’s elites think of China?

China is an untrustworthy country. While North Korea and China are allies on the surface, North Korean elites don’t recognize China as one. During the Arduous March from 1994 to 1998, China did not help at all and pressed North Korea to stop nuclear development.

China’s Communist Party has criticized hereditary succession as the source of inequality, but why does it acknowledge North Korea’s power succession?

After Kim Il Sung officially named his son Kim Jong-il as heir, he demanded China acknowledge its succession system. China initially opposed but later recognized it under the condition that North Korea did not openly criticize Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up as revisionist.

Does China really want North Korea’s denuclearization?

At the six-party talks, China’s representative, Wu Dawei, met secretly with the South’s Song Min-soon, not the North’s Kim Kye-kwan. Because of North Korea’s nuclear tests and weapons development, North-China relations have escalated to a level just under exchanging curses.

Does Kim Jong-un have the will to reform and open up?

To reform like China and Vietnam, people should be given freedom to access information, freedom to move and freedom not to engage in the political organization. In such a case, North Korea cannot maintain its power succession system. True form of reform and opening up will not be possible.

When Kim Jong-il toured Shanghai in 2001, he called it a show and that North Korea shouldn’t dream of it. Kim Jong-un might go for a controlled, separate special district similar to the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

Is Swiss-educated Kim Jong-un different from his grandfather and father?

At Panmunjom and in Singapore, he projected a cool image. Externally, he seems different from his grandfather and father. Internally, his image hasn’t changed. He is smart but quite merciless.

Will North Korea use its nuclear weapons on South Korea?

While South Korea’s liberals would deny it, I think there is a possibility of using nuclear weapons on South Korea. If an emergency situation occurred in the North, South Korea would not stand idly and start an operation to bring down the North. Kim Jong-un purged his uncle, and if his system falls, he will not die for nothing.

What do you mean when you call the competition between South and North a fight between diversity and unity?

In the economic and political environments, everything changes, but North Korea remains rigid. South Korea is chaotic because of rapid changes, but it is free. I am sure diversity will triumph over unity in the end.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 26, Page 28
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