Declaring that “Kim Jong Un’s days are numbered,” one of the highest-ranking North Korean officials to ever defect to South Korea shared rare firsthand knowledge and insight into the what he describes as the deteriorating situation inside the secretive and repressive Kim Jong Un regime.
“The elite class, which had supported North Korean society, has turned their backs on Kim Jong Un. Traditional structures of the North Korean system are crumbling,” said Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador in London, who defected to South Korea in July.
Thae is currently an analyst at the Institute for National Security Strategy, a research organization affiliated with South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.
Speaking at length to journalists in Seoul on Wednesday, Thae said his growing disillusionment with the young North Korean leader, who took power in December 2011, reached a tipping point in the last year, as Kim set a “fanatical goal” to achieve a reliable long-range nuclear strike capability by 2017, while the United States and South Korea are undergoing political transitions.
Despite increasing international sanctions, North Korea in the last year conducted two nuclear tests, 24 missile launches and has indicated it may soon openly test an intercontinental ballistic missile.
After Thae made the decision to defect, it took time and some luck to make his escape with his family. For diplomats stationed overseas, North Korea usually requires that one family member remain behind as a “hostage,” Thae said, to deter defections.
“The Kim Jong Un regime even abuses the love between parents and children to control North Korean diplomats,” he said.
Thae would not reveal how he arranged it, but he managed to bring both his children to London. Once he had his family together, he made his flight to freedom in South Korea.
He does regret, however, that other relatives he left behind may have been punished and sent to prison camps for his defection.
Today, Thae said, the rise of illegal “grasshopper” markets, widespread corruption and the influx of outside information are fueling public discontent and weakening the government’s traditional ability to maintain order through fear and intimidation.
An increasing number of illegal but often tolerated street vendors, that appear and move suddenly like grasshoppers, have helped keep the local economy functioning following the collapse of the communist state system decades ago.
But these emerging private markets are also making people more resentful of restrictions imposed by the state and less fearful of police and security officials, who have become more interested in soliciting bribes than in enforcing the law.
“A few years ago that sort of resistance was unthinkable because the North Korean system is a system where the people should act according to the instructions of the authority,” Thae said.
The influx of information, mostly popular South Korean movies and dramas that show the freedom and prosperity that exists in the outside world, is increasingly penetrating the closed society of North Korea.
Thae is advocating for increasing the dissemination of outside information into North Korea, which he said will be like spraying gasoline on a fire of public anger, eventually sparking a popular uprising that will topple the Kim family regime.
The former North Korean diplomat compares the growing discontent in his country to the situation in the Soviet Union before its collapse, and hopes for a peaceful outcome that ends with a unified and democratic Korea.
However there is also a high risk that the leadership in Pyongyang will respond to protests with deadly force and repression, as China did following the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Thae warned against the U.S. or South Korea launching any preemptive strikes against North Korea. Such military action, he said, would likely start a war.
He also warned against appeasing Kim Jong Un by compromising on sanctions or ending joint U.S., South Korea military drills for a nuclear freeze. It’s a trap, Thae said, that would ultimately legitimize the North as a nuclear state, as has happened over time with India and Pakistan.
The possibility of a military coup inside North Korea is remote because the leadership is loyal to Kim, he said. Although he notes that many in the armed forces are also frustrated with the current system.
And Thae said the leaders in Pyongyang do not fear retaliation from China for its nuclear program, because they think Beijing would rather have a nuclear North Korea on its border than contend with a unified democratic Korea allied with the United States.
Youmi Kim contributed to this report.