South Korean lawmaker Thae Yong-ho was once a high-ranking North Korean diplomat. In 2016, while he was Pyongyang’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, he defected with his family to the South. Less than four years after his family arrived in Seoul, Thae won a local election and became a member of the National Assembly representing the city’s wealthy Gangnam district.
As a member of the assembly, Thae has served on the Foreign Affairs and Unification committee, drawing on his unique expertise on North Korea to help form South Korean policy. On Mar. 8, South Korea’s ruling People Power Party elected Thae to its supreme council, making him the first defector to enter into a South Korean political party’s leadership.
RFA’s Korean Service interviewed Thae on March 16 to discuss struggles faced by North Korean escapees who have resettled in South Korea, North Korean security, North Korea’s leadership, and other issues. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
RFA: You’re the first North Korean defector to become a member of the South Korean National Assembly, and you have continued to blaze the trail by becoming the first defector to rise into a major political party’s senior leadership. What does your success mean in terms of South Korean society’s views on North Korean escapees?
Thae: I feel that the window of prejudice and discrimination against North Korean escapees in South Korean society has been broken again. I think this is an opportunity to show that South Korea is a truly diverse and inclusive society. In countries like North Korea and China, being a member of the Standing Committee means that you have risen to be the best of the best. But the fact that I went in as an elected official is truly great for anyone who knows this structure. I hope it will be an opportunity for new hope for the North Korean escapees who have fallen into a sense of defeat and pessimism.
RFA: What do you imagine that Kim Jong Un might be thinking to see a former member of his regime being elected as a supreme council member of a South Korean political party?
Thae: Kim Jong Un receives daily reports from the United Front Department on the political and economic situation in South Korea. [He] probably thinks that if this news reaches North Korea, it will be a big deal. He could also worry that there will be more breakaways from the elite. [Most North Koreans] probably won’t know about it right away, but this is the Internet era and many North Koreans abroad are using cell phones or the Internet. It will become a well-known fact sooner or later.
RFA: North Korea continues to promote nuclear and missile advancement. What do you think Kim Jong Un’s true intentions are? And how do you think South Korea and its allies should respond to this?
Thae: One goal is to develop nuclear weapons to completely subdue South Korea with nuclear weapons. The other is so that the United States comes to nuclear negotiations with North Korea and responds to nuclear disarmament negotiations on North Korea’s terms.
First, we are currently holding a large ROK-US joint military exercise right now called Freedom Shield, and it is based on extended deterrence. If Kim Jong Un flinches though, the end of the North Korean regime will come swiftly under the might of a huge conventional force.
Next, South Korea must temporarily acquire nuclear weapons. North Korea has nuclear weapons, South Korea does not. The United States has nuclear weapons, so North Korea is trying to negotiate nuclear disarmament between countries with nuclear weapons.
So, if [the South has] nuclear weapons, we have a justification to confidently engage in nuclear disarmament negotiations.
RFA: In your book, “Password of the Third Floor Secretary Room,” you said past negotiations with North Korea were deceptions meant to waste time. If South Korea temporarily possesses nuclear weapons and enters into nuclear negotiations with North Korea, how should Seoul’s approach differ from previous negotiations?
Thae: Telling [North Korea] to get rid of [missiles] all at once won’t work. We have to go step by step. Let’s get rid of ICBMs by mutual verification. For the next step, let’s get rid of missiles (SLBMs) from submarines. We must open the way to denuclearization by building trust through nuclear disarmament step by step, like the way Russia [or its predecessor state, the Soviet Union] and the United States have done.
RFA: There is a lot of criticism about this proposal. Some say that if South Korea acquired nuclear weapons, international sanctions could be imposed, and the ROK-US alliance could be weakened. What is your opinion on this?
Thae: We are a country that has a military alliance with the United States. So, we can’t play alone, or unilaterally. We must go through endless debates and negotiations with the United States. In the future, if the nuclear military alliance between North Korea, China, and Russia deepens further, the U.S. will eventually come to a stage where it is carefully examining whether it is possible for them to fight two wars at the same time on the Korean Peninsula and in Taiwan, in front of China.
Anticipating these steps, we must constantly negotiate and discuss with the United States. We should never give up on our own without setting these goals and negotiating with the United States.
RFA: Does this mean that we can expect that the issue of international sanctions will be resolved naturally if there is dialogue with the United States?
Thae: Right, as long as the United States agrees. We have to convince the U.S. that it is ultimately beneficial for us to arm ourselves and achieve a nuclear balance with North Korea.
RFA: The North Korean regime has passed its leadership from father to son for three generations now. Do you think the Kim Dynasty can continue to the fourth generation? Will Kim Jong Un’s daughter Kim Ju Ae one day rule North Korea?
Thae: I think the North Korean regime will never make it to the fourth generation with Kim Ju Ae. Since Kim Jong Un came to power, the North Korean regime has gone too far in a very unstable and abnormal direction over the past decade.
I wonder if Kim Jong Un is truly so nervous that he is making such a fuss to have his 10-year-old daughter succeed him. Another problem is that the military and government leadership cannot remain stable from year to year. They are constantly changing players. This means there is no consensus or solidarity between Kim Jong Un and the leaders surrounding him. So, distrust is building. I think that’s why they are constantly changing personnel.
Next, young people who are growing up in North Korea have no loyalty to the North Korean system. They only value reality, and dream of a more open and prosperous country. When they grow up and become the backbone of North Korea in their 40s and 50s, I believe that Kim Jong Un’s system will inevitably collapse.
RFA: Experts have raised the possibility that Kim Ju Ae may be the successor to Kim Jong Un, though. Isn’t it at least possible?
Thae: I wonder if Kim Jong Un would really hand over the power to his daughter, not to a son. I think right now he is building this image that the next succession will go to four generations because he has children.
Also, if Kim Jong Un is insecure about his health right now, let’s say he got sick today, then [his sister] Kim Yo-jong has no choice but to emerge as a replacement. To some extent, Kim Yo-jong would rule.
I think it may be part of a power struggle to imprint in advance that Kim Yo-jong cannot rule indefinitely, but that she would have to hand power over to Kim Jong Un’s children when they become adults.
RFA: According to the recently published book “The Pyongyang Lady Who Came from London,” penned by your wife O Hye-son, it seems you worked really hard while you were in North Korea. In your book, “Password of the Third Floor Secretary Room,” you said that the moment you defected from North Korea in the U.K., “tears flowed endlessly.” Can you explain more about how you felt at that time?
Thae: Two emotions crossed my mind. One was thinking about defecting from North Korea at my age, and I thought that I had lived such a wasted life for so long. The other thing was that I thought about what kind of life I would live from then on. I was leaving North Korea and coming to South Korea. I committed to myself that I would devote the rest of my life, to the very end, for freedom and democracy and the reunification of the Korean Peninsula.
RFA: People in North Korea are listening to Radio Free Asia Broadcasting. Is there anything you would like to say to them directly?
Thae: Only because you were born in North Korea, you are living a difficult life right now. I think you must overthrow the Kim Jong Un regime if you want to live a free life like those in South Korea and be treated like a human like people in other countries are. When the Kim Jong Un regime collapses, that will be the day you will find a life worthy of human dignity.
Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong.