When the news broke yesterday that North Korea’s Deputy Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Thae Yong-ho, had defected, many reporters who knew him were astonished. Subject to the confirmation of reports that a North Korean general and several diplomats defected in China recently, Thae would be the highest-ranking diplomat to have defected from the North, and the second-highest official, after Hwang Jang-yop‘s defection in 1997.
This is a new low in a bad year for Kim Jong-un. Defections are not only rising in number — up 15 percent from last year, but still well below pre-Kim Jong-un levels — the songbun levels of the defectors themselves are also rising. It isn’t just the lowly, downtrodden, and expendable who are fleeing now. Defections and protests are breaking out among the elite classes, vetted workers, and senior officials. Defections and small-scale mutinies within the military aren’t new, but those also seem to be rising.
Asked if this means “that North Korea is on the verge of collapse,” Christopher Green says, “Absolutely not.” But the only thing we can say “absolutely” is that no one outside Pyongyang can be absolutely certain of anything, and especially not now. The Pyongyang elite is the world’s most insular group of people. No one — with the possible exception of Thae and a few of his former confederates — should pretend to know, and not even they can predict it. All I can say is that trends that can’t continue won’t.
Thae was not just any North Korean diplomat, but an unusually high-profile one in an important post (Pyongyang’s current Foreign Minister is a former Ambassador to the U.K.). One of Thae’s duties was to monitor (and perhaps, to intimidate, or to turn) the growing population of North Korean refugees in Britain, something North Korea sometimes does by threatening their loved ones. Thae, unlike most of them, was fortunate enough to have the option of getting his own wife and two sons out, and the NIS’s help in carrying out a “scrupulous plan” for doing that. As of this morning, NK News reported that the family had arrived in South Korea.
Another of Thae’s duties was to protest against unflattering portrayals of his country and its leader, including (to the amusement of many) a satirical appropriation of His Porcine Majesty’s image by a hair salon. Thae could also have voiced North Korea’s objections to a proposed British television series in 2014. Other duties included serving as the “sole point-person for visa issues at the embassy” and taking Kim Jong-chol to a Clapton concert.
But Thae Yong-ho’s most important duty was to act as his justly despised regime’s (arguably) most oleaginous and effective mouthpiece. He did this job well, judging by the shock of the reporters and Korea-watchers who thought they knew him. They described him as “smooth and debonair,” “so middle-class, so conservative, so dapper,” “[c]harming, smart and with impeccable English,” “[d]ebonair and well-spoken” with a “measured style.” One man who knew him seemed shocked that Thae “had never given any hint of disloyalty to the regime, not a flicker of doubt,” which really shouldn’t be shocking at all.
Had many emails, calls with Mr. Thae before he defected. A truly debonair, astute diplomat. His defection, amazing. pic.twitter.com/YbbqXQ9CHi
— James Pearson (@pearswick) August 17, 2016
Thae seems articulate by North Korean diplomatic standards — yes, that is an oxymoron — although I also perceive some soft bigotry of low expectations in some of these judgments (to be clear, I don’t mean Pearson here). Still, is it any wonder why a guy like that wouldn’t want to go back to North Korea? Of course, certain bookstores in Jeremy Corbin’s England must seem at least a little bit like North Korea at times. Even I sympathize with Thae’s position as Pyongyang’s agent of influence when he must humor this klatsch of insufferable, Chomsky-thumping pseudo-intellectual poseurs.
How could Thae so convincingly project such belief in a system he secretly wanted to flee? The answer is “practice.” Natan Sharanksy’s “The Case for Democracy” is, without much doubt, a book of ideas with more merit for some societies than others, and much first-person wisdom about the psychology of those who live in totalitarian societies. One of the concepts Sharansky explains to his readers is “doublethink” — how a life lived under totalitarianism teaches people to compartmentalize the things they believe from the things they must believe.
It must also be the case that one who lives in a totalitarian society can simultaneously harbor views that seem mutually contradictory to us. North Koreans might feel nationalist pride in nuclear and missile tests while wishing that the state would spend its money on feeding their hungry children instead. They might despise both their government and its enemies. They might loathe America and secretly long to visit or live there. They might take pride in their purity while craving the impure. They might hate Kim Jong-un and revere his grandfather (if reservedly). When your job is to persuade a skeptical world of the things you must believe, self-delusion becomes essential to your livelihood, and to survival itself.
Which is to say that on a certain level, Thae may have believed much of what he said in defense of the regime he served with one part of his mind, while knowing in another, compartmentalized part of it that he was lying to everyone in the room — himself most of all — when he defended North Korea’s record on human rights.
That, or he was just a really good liar.
What caused Thae to flee, and what do his reasons tell us about broader political trends, or vulnerabilities? Our only direct evidence is what the South Korean government said about Thae’s reasons.
“About the motive of defection, it is known that Councillor Thae revealed he got sick and tired of the Kim Jong Un regime and yearned for a liberal and democratic regime, concerned about the future of his children,” MoU spokesperson Jeong added.
The spokesperson added that the defection illustrated the “North’s core layer considers there is no hope for the Kim Jong Un regime anymore… the perception that the North Korean regime already reached breaking point has been spreading and internal unity among the ruling class has been weakened. [NK News]
If you suspect that this is spin, it certainly sounds like it, although that guess makes as much sense as any other. A Yonhap “News Focus” piece goes further, arguing that Thae’s defection comes “amid increasing talk in South Korea about signs of a possible exodus by privileged North Koreans who are feeling the squeeze of international sanctions.” I’d like to believe this, but the piece offers little evidence that sanctions played a role in Thae’s defection.
Yonhap’s report then cites a researcher at the Sejong Institute, who speculates that “[i]n the face of new U.S. sanctions against North Korea’s human rights violations, which specifically targeted leader Kim Jong-un, Thae must have felt ever more inner conflict in his position to promote North Korea.” I’d love to believe that theory, too, but I still don’t see any direct evidence to support it.
The same Sejong researcher also speculates that Thae “may have been exposed to frequent criticism from Western countries … and that might have spawned psychological conflicts.” Similarly, the Joongang Ilbo’s first anonymously sourced report claims that Thae “had been under growing pressure from Pyongyang to combat the diplomatic heat from the international community over North Korean violations of human rights.”
Or, maybe he got in trouble for recommending visas for the BBC correspondent who was detained and expelled for saying unflattering things about the regime in Pyongyang. Or, maybe he couldn’t stand the thought of facing those insufferable bookstore Chomskyites again. Or, maybe Pyongyang wanted to move him before his kids finished school.
Here’s another possible explanation.
Thae’s defection will be an embarrassment to Pyongyang, but Kim Jong-un can surely survive the embarrassment of Thae Yong-ho’s alienation if he can survive the embarrassment of Dennis Rodman’s friendship. Thae’s laptop, cell phone, and bank records could help identify bank accounts, shell companies, and other illicit revenue schemes the London embassy uses to finance its operations. Given his role in Pyongyang’s influence operations, he may be able to identify spies and unregistered agents of influence in Europe, South Korea, or even the U.S. His very defection will cause the regime to redouble restrictions on, and monitoring of, its overseas personnel, and call home those it deems less than fully trustworthy. These precautions will feed the death spiral that undermines the loyalty of the remaining overseas personnel, who must work even harder to meet their earnings quotas.
The greatest potential that Thae may bring to Seoul, however, will be his perspective and talent for persuasion. Here is a man who can lie intelligently and convincingly. Just imagine how persuasive he’d be if he really believed himself. You can already see where I’m going with this, right?
The report cited a North Korean woman from South Pyeongan Province currently in China as saying that television signals transmitted from South Korea can be picked up in areas near Pyongyang such as Pyongsong and Sunchon.
She said that people who are watching South Korean television are mostly the elite class and they are strictly keeping it a secret.
Another source on North Korean affairs noted that South Korean TV programs can be viewed in Pyongyang as well as the Hwanghae and Hamgyeong provinces and coastal cities.
The source said that signals are particularly well received on flat lands and along coastlines, adding that images are more clear on cloudy days. [KBS]
Thae has undoubtedly done some terrible things to gain and keep his position. I doubt he had much choice. But if he wants to redeem himself as a transformational figure in Korean history, he has the potential that the wooden, doctrinaire, and charismatically challenged Hwang Jong-yop never had. I imagine that would work something like this.
[Kinda works for the last New Hampshire primaries, too.]
It has long been my view that governments place too much value on secrecy and too little value on public diplomacy and persuasion. Imagine the profound subversive impact on audiences in Pyongyang to see Thae speak the truth about why he defected. I can think of no better messenger to tell Pyongyang’s elites why they must reform and disarm or perish.