WASHINGTON - The only way to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions is to eliminate the Kim Jong Un regime, the high-level North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea last year told VOA, suggesting the U.S. should continue deploying pressure tactics against Pyongyang.
As multiple nuclear and missile tests have taken place since Kim succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011, the U.S. and South Korea have been ratcheting up pressure against North Korea, calling for a commitment to denuclearization before the resumption of any dialogue. This seems to still be the position of the Trump administration, which is reviewing “all options,” including U.S. military intervention against the North.
“North Korea must understand that the only path to a secure, economically prosperous future is to abandon its development of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and other weapons of mass destruction,” said U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson in Seoul on Friday during his first official Asia trip.
Kim, however, has been trying to “break the formula” of securing a commitment to abandon his nuclear weapons program for any type of U.S. outreach, defector Thae Yong Ho, Pyongyang’s former deputy ambassador in London, told VOA.
According to Thae, Kim is urging adversaries to halt their annual joint military drills and lift sanctions on North Korea in return for a suspension of its nuclear and missile programs. Such compromises will serve only to legitimize North Korea as a nuclear power, Thae added.
'Compromises only serve Kim’
“If we recognize the North as a nuclear state, we are providing clear justification for its nuclear and missile tests and admitting its claim that it is developing a nuclear arsenal as a result of external threats [from the U.S. and South Korea],” explained the diplomat, who defected to Seoul with his family in August 2016.
“Kim Jong Un will never give up the nuclear program. As long as Kim Jong Un’s regime is in place, there is no solution for [the North Korean nuclear issue] and any kind of compromises would only serve Kim,” Thae added.
Pyongyang is inching closer to a regime collapse as it attempts to conduct increasingly more powerful nuclear tests, the former envoy said.
The Punggye-ri nuclear test facility in northeast North Korea sits on a swath of land that connects the capital, Pyongyang, to North Hamgyong Province on the border with China. Any failed nuclear test in the area could potentially cause two disasters, Thae said. One would be large-scale environmental contamination, affecting all of North Korea. The other would be what China has long feared — a flood of refugees crossing the Yalu River.
Kim’s downfall also could come from the growth of a market economy within North Korea, said Thae, who is now an analyst at the Institute for National Security Strategy, a research organization affiliated with South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.
Impact of semi-legal markets
Thae told VOA he believes the continued expansion of jangmadang, North Korea’s semi-legal markets where individuals buy and sell goods they have produced themselves or imported from China, can prompt disillusionment among the North Korean people.
“North Korea is changing in a way that its people no longer rely on the state and the leader for their survival, but rather on themselves,” Thae said. “If this process continues, the country will reach a tipping point where the people begin to stand up for not just their economic rights, but also their political rights.”
In the same vein, VOA and other outside media play a vital role in helping the North Koreans see the reality of the reclusive regime, under which a ruler is deified and acts of inhumanity, repression and corruption are rampant, Thae said.
While he was the deputy head of the North Korean Embassy in London, Thae said he visited VOA’s Korean Service website “almost every day” and that North Korea’s Foreign Ministry also monitors VOA and other media outlets such as Japan’s state broadcaster NHK every day.
“The North Korean regime pays great attention on the content of VOA,” said Thae, who listened to the Korean language broadcasts before he defected. “So I think it’s very important the VOA further strengthens its activities.”
Park Byungyong and Brian Padden in Seoul contributed to this report, which originated with the VOA Korean Service.