North Korean elite are turning against leader Kim, top defector claims
Thae Yong-ho is the most senior official to have fled North Korea and entered public life in the South since 1997
The North Korean elite are outwardly expressing their discontent towards young leader Kim Jong-un and his government as more outside information trickles into the isolated country, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador to London said on Wednesday.
Thae Yong-ho defected to South Korea in August last year and since December 2016 has been speaking to media and appearing on variety television shows to discuss his defection to Seoul and his life as a North Korean envoy.
“When Kim Jong-un first came to power, I was hopeful that he would make reasonable and rational decisions to save North Korea from poverty, but I soon fell into despair watching him purging officials for no proper reasons,” Thae said during his first news conference with foreign media on Wednesday.
“Low-level dissent or criticism of the regime, until recently unthinkable, is becoming more frequent,” said Thae, who spoke in fluent, British-accented English.
“We have to spray gasoline on North Korea, and let the North Korean people set fire to it.”
Thae, 54, has said publicly that dissatisfaction with Kim Jong-un prompted him to flee his post.
Prior to his defection, Thae had worked at the embassy for 10 years – an unusually lengthy period of time in such a high-profile posting.
Overseas diplomats are generally recalled to Pyongyang every three or four years and undergo a period of “re-education” before being posted abroad again.
Thae’s defection was also eased by having his wife and two university-age sons with him. Some diplomats have to leave family members in the North, precisely to deter flight impulses.
Thae said he was also motivated to flee because he didn’t want to see his children living “miserable” lives.
Thae said his sons had complained about being made fun by their classmates in London because of the nature of their homeland. He subsequently told them about the truth about the North.
North and South Korea are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The North, which is subject to UN sanctions over its nuclear and missile programmes, regularly threatens to destroy the South and its main ally, the United States.
Thae is the most senior official to have fled North Korea and entered public life in the South since the 1997 defection of Hwang Jang-yop, the brains behind the North’s governing ideology, “Juche”, which combines Marxism and extreme nationalism.
During his stint in London, a large part of Thae’s duties involved countering criticism of North Korea’s human rights record and other negative media coverage.
British journalists who met him, described Thae as likeable, urbane and highly articulate – qualities that come across in a series of talks posted on YouTube in which, among other things, he compares life in Britain and North Korea.
Today’s North Korean system had “nothing to do with true communism”, Thae said, adding that the elite, like himself, had watched with unease as countries like Cambodia, Vietnam and the former Soviet Union embraced economic and social reforms.
Thae has said that more North Korean diplomats are waiting in Europe to defect to South Korea.
North Korea still outwardly professes to maintain a Soviet-style command economy, but for years a thriving network of informal markets and person-to-person trading has become the main source of food and money for ordinary people.
Fully embracing these reforms would end Kim Jong-un’s rule, Thae said.
Asked if Kim Jong-un brother, Kim Jong-chol, could run the country instead, Thae remained sceptical.
“Kim Jong-chol has no interest in politics. He is only interested in music,” Thae said.
“He’s only interested in Eric Clapton. If he was a normal man, I’m sure he’d be a very good professional guitarist”.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Associated Press