Citizens of Pyongyang, My Name is Thae Yong-ho (Part 2)

Either someone in Seoul is reading this site, or great minds think alike. Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s former Deputy Ambassador to the U.K., who defected to Seoul earlier this year with his wife and two sons, is leaving the protection of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service and entering South Korean society, where he will not remain silent.

The report claims that Thae brought “images of documents related to financial activities at the North Korean embassy in the UK” that prove he did not embezzle embassy funds, but which may also shed light on North Korea’s overseas slush funds and money laundering. That is bad enough for Kim Jong-un, but not nearly as bad as this:

“He had decided to defect to South Korea long ago because of the growing disappointment towards Kim Jong Un’s oppression, and the North Koreans who are living as slaves,” Lee was quoted as saying in the Choson Ilbo report. [….]

According to local press, Thae also vowed to become involved in public activities related to inter-Korean affairs and reunification. [NK News, Hamish Macdonald]

By the accounts of most journalists who knew him, Thae is an articulate and compelling speaker. He certainly isn’t going to make crowds of people pour into the streets of Pyongyang with candles in their hands, but he can do very serious damage to Pyongyang’s propaganda narratives both in and about the South.

In a way that Hwang Jang-yop never could, Thae can become a leader among the divided North Korean diaspora in the South and help build their influence inside South Korea and (with his excellent command of English) internationally. He can explain to young or deluded South Koreans who are sympathetic to, or ambivalent about, the regime in the North that it is not a legitimate keeper of their nationhood or any kind of paradise. He can give us all insights into what North Koreans in Pyongyang really think, even as they profess loyalty to the regime.

Thae’s broadcasts to the North can begin an underground conversation about what kind of society the North Korean people want. He can plant in their minds a vision of how a functioning democracy works. He can explain how tolerant, pluralistic, and representative governments work, and how quickly North Korea can evolve into a democratic society while holding back the disruptive and chaotic effects of rapid political and social change.

His words can have an even greater impact inside Pyongyang, if Thae broadcasts to his countrymen there. He can spread a message of peace, convincing key officials and military officers to quietly disable their weapons, or to disobey orders to fire on civilian targets. He can encourage other diplomats and officials to defect, and to bring key financial and intelligence information with them. He can convince key officials that in the event of a coup, or another historically determinative event, they should make themselves unreachable, or actively join the opposition. He can tell those responsible for the ongoing crimes in North Korea’s prison camps that, depending on the decisions they make at critical moments, they will face either accountability or clemency. 

If Thae’s plans are as ambitious as my suggestions here, recent reports from inside North Korea — admittedly from sources with an anti-regime slant — suggest that there may be an audience for his words. According to Radio Free Asia, Kim Jong-un is unpopular even in Pyongyang, where residents whisper that his is a “pig” and “an incompetent child.” The Daily NK reports that disillusionment with, and anxiety about, His Porcine Majesty’s rule exists across all demographics of North Korea’s population. Ironically, crackdowns and purges following Thae’s defection may have played a significant role in driving Kim Jong-un’s popularity even lower. Defector surveys, which raise obvious concerns about selection bias, offer the only supporting empirical evidence that’s available to us.

Anecdotal reports lend further support to this trend. The Daily NK reports that someone wrote “Overthrow Kim Jong Un” and “Punish Kim Jong Un,” on 5,000-won notes, and scattered them on the streets of Hoeryong. Separate reports claim that anti-government leaflets were found in neighboring Ryanggang Province. Reports such as these are impossible to confirm, but a photograph taken inside North Korea demands that citizens report a series of subversive acts, including “raising or attempting to evoke social problems by disturbing public order,” “watching, listening, copying and disseminating exotic and decadent sound recordings, video, picture, and publications which are inconsistent with our people’s thought and emotion,” and, most intriguingly, “[t]he act of possessing, selling and buying guns, bullet (sic), gunpowder, explosives, deadly weapons.” The implication is that these things occur inside North Korea, and that the regime is worried about them.

For now, opposition to the regime remains muted and isolated, because it lacks a galvanizing voice and an organizational foundation. But according to the Daily NK, North Korean state propaganda that dwelled heavily on the popular uprising against Park Geun-hye may have backfired by planting similar ideas in the minds of North Koreans. More than Hwang Jang-yop, and more than any other person, Thae Yong-ho could be that voice, to Koreans on both sides of the DMZ, and to the wider world.

According to NK News, Thae “will likely remain under tight security while in the South.” He’d better. By speaking out publicly, Thae Yong-ho will become North Korea’s Emmanuel Goldstein. As the Reconnaissance General Bureau attempted on multiple occasions to assassinate Hwang Jang-yop, it will stop at nothing to assassinate Thae Yong-ho. He and his family members will need courage, and they will also need protection. Thae’s decision to speak out could be the most dangerously subversive development of Kim Jong-un’s reign.

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Update: This is also a good excuse to remind readers of a recent report by a group of North Korea experts on information strategies that could be directed at the elites in Pyongyang.

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Update 2: More (third-hand) accounts of Thae Yong-ho’s motives and insights, here and here.