Why talk of human rights unnerves North Korean diplomats so much, and why that matters

The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Cheng has taken note of the rise in defections by members of the North Korean elite. Over the last year, this blog closely followed that trend, including the unprecedented group defections of workers in Malta, China, and Russia; soldiers guarding the Yalu River border; high-ranking intelligence officers; and even diplomats. Last week, a Chinese media report also claimed that “approximately 10 North Korean IT technicians and hackers went missing around 9 p.m. Wednesday in Changchun in the northeastern Chinese province of Jilin.” It is not just the rank and status of these defectors that matters so much, but also what group defections tell us about the potential for conspiratorial and collective action against the world’s most repressive state.

So far, Thae Yong-ho is the only North Korean diplomat to have come out publicly, but Thae now says there are others.

“A significant number of diplomats came to South Korea,” Thae Yong-ho told a conference hosted by the conservative Bareun Party which will be formally launched this month. “Even now, there are a number of (North Koreans) waiting to head to the South.”

“There will be an increase in the number of elite-class defectors seeking a better life,” he added. “I am the only high-ranking official whose identity has been revealed to the public. South Korean media do not know but North Korean diplomats are all aware of it.” [Yonhap]

That aligns with this NK News report, citing South Korean press reports (which, in turn, cite “unnamed local officials”) that at least seven North Korean diplomats posted in Bulgaria, Russia, and East Asia defected last year. If true, that would be remarkable; it could also be profoundly consequential. For obvious reasons, Thae can’t confirm who those other defectors are, but some tantalizing, still-unverified reports last year claimed that top-level Bureau 39 slush fund managers defected from China, Europe, and Russia. Again, if those reports are true, these men could expose the funding network that pays the soldiers, guards, civil servants, and security forces that sustain Kim Jong-un’s misrule. They could also cause nervous bankers across China, Russia, and Europe to flip and report suspicious North Korean transactions to the Treasury Department, for fear of being outed by defectors and penalized for sanctions violations or money laundering.

Thae hasn’t said as much about his own knowledge of regime finances, but he does say that North Korea’s insurance fraud scam continued until the EU’s recent blocking of the Korea National Insurance Corporation, despite its exposure years ago by Kim Kwang-jin. The greater impact of Thae’s defection, however, will be the damage it does to North Korea’s political cohesion. We will not know its full extent until his calls for revolution reach his homeland. Nor will we know its full effect on the new Trump administration until Thae speaks directly to American policymakers in his excellent English. 

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What causes the disgruntlement of a scion of one of North Korea’s most privileged bloodlines and a trusted member of His Porcine Majesty’s foreign service? Thae Yong-ho’s path toward dissent and defection sounds like another case of Marxist criticism being particularly (and ironically) applicable to what I’ll call North Korean crisis theory; that is, his faith was undone by the system’s internal contradictions. He wanted a better life for himself and his children than the system could offer. He wanted Kim Jong-un to be a reformer. And for all the propaganda that North Koreans have nothing to envy, Thae knew better. He could not defend the system against the evidence of its inhumanity.

Thae also emphasized the importance of international pressure on North Korea’s human rights issue based on his experience as a former diplomat. According to him, North Korean diplomats can remain defiant and proud on the issue of nuclear development, but when it comes to the issue of human rights, they often lose their nerve.

“North Korean diplomats can talk proudly about nuclear development wherever they go, because although it seems that the world is united against North Korea, many countries are actually keeping their eye on how the North will develop itself as a nuclear power. Some countries are interested in following North Korea’s path to becoming a nuclear power themselves. Therefore, North Korean diplomats retain their dignity despite the criticisms of international society,” Thae explained.

“However, there is not a single country that approves of North Korea’s human rights violations. The most frequent question I received was, ‘Do you think North Korea is an egalitarian society?’ North Korea will inevitably be put on the defensive in a debate over the human rights issue,” Thae added.

Thae particularly emphasized the importance of taking Kim Jong Un to the ICC (International Criminal Court), adding that North Korean diplomats are doing everything in their power to prevent it.

“It is not easy for North Koreans to understand the concepts of the ICC or human rights. But they will be greatly interested if they hear that Kim Jong Un will be tried at the international court. It will be a direct sign that Kim Jong Un is a criminal and his regime has no future,” Thae added. [Daily NK]

Look at some of the videos of Thae defending the North Korean system, knowing now that he probably didn’t believe half of it. He did it better than Jang Il-hun did it at the Council on Foreign Relations a little more than two years ago. (In one particularly absurd moment, Jang cited North Korea’s new ski resort as evidence that human rights conditions had improved. Human Rights Watch, not surprisingly, has a different view). Having to defend the indefensible to foreign audiences eventually takes a toll.

Exposed to the outside world and information, North Korean diplomats often face a dilemma of knowing the fabrication of Pyongyang and having to still speak for the regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and human rights records.

“North Korea’s elite class is living an opportunistic life and believes that they can continue to live like that (with the privileges they enjoy). During the day, they extol the virtues of Kim Jong-un, but at night they hide themselves under a blanket to watch (South Korean) dramas,” the 55-year-old career diplomat said.

“I, myself, had to cry hooray for Kim Jong-un … but I had a very difficult time defending the North Korean state during meetings with people in Britain in which most people denounced the North’s system and challenged my vindication of it,” according to him.

The North Korean government is well aware of such a dilemma and strains to keep outside news from its people, even from the country’s top echelons, he noted.

“Even a vice head of the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) of the Workers’ Party of Korea cannot enter a (foreign ministry) room where CNN is being played although a common member of the foreign ministry is given access to it,” Thae said. “The OGD vice head may have complete sway over me, but he is only allowed government-filtered information, and nothing else.”

Diplomats also keep their mouth shut primarily out of desperation to protect themselves and their families who can fall victim to the regime’s merciless dealings with those who let out banned information.

“North Korean society is sustainable only on the condition that the inflow of outside information is shut out. The day such information makes inroads, North Korea would fall apart,” he said. [Yonhap]

Other North Korean diplomats are finding their hosts increasingly critical of Kim Jong-un by name. 

North Korean embassies are in a pinch as their attempts to defend Pyongyang’s human rights record overseas is backfiring and the international community is now criticizing their leader, Kim Jong-un, by name.

Fed up with North Korea human rights issues, European countries are making especially critical remarks of Kim Jong-un, according to a government source Wednesday.

As North Korea continues to defend its human rights situation, which is condemned by the United Nations, Kim Jong-un has subsequently been called “a kid who knows nothing” and worse.

Thus, Pyongyang, in the midst of harsh economic sanctions, faces further isolation.

“These remarks are coming in foreign ministers’ meeting, so high-level officials and North Korean embassies are all actively trying to respond to this,” the official continued. “While this hasn’t been reported in media, as such news is being spread in diplomatic circles, North Korean overseas embassies are actively working to respond to this.”

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto referred to the North Korean leader as a “lunatic communist dictator,” which prompted Pyongyang’s embassy in Austria to demand an explanation, VOA reported last week. But this backfired, and Hungary reportedly sent an official letter stating that the foreign minister’s words are his views and beliefs.

Szijjarto last month visited Seoul and met with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se on Dec. 16. The Hungarian foreign minister was said to have recounted his childhood under the brutalities of a communist dictatorship. [Joongang Ilbo]

Fear also takes a toll on the diplomats. The regime, concerned that diplomatic isolation will deny it access to foreign markets, finance, and legitimacy, has ordered them to “contain the situation” and has threatened to punish those who fail to do so. 

The diplomatic source here said, “They are ordered to take all measures and invest whatever resources needed to block such critical talk of Kim Jong-un from becoming public opinion. If they do not take care of this issue properly, it is said the diplomats of the respective embassies will be summoned home and punished.”

Pyongyang has especially been sensitive on the issue since Washington for the first time imposed sanctions on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un over human rights abuses in July. [Joongang Ilbo]

As I said at the time, symbols are powerful things, especially to North Korea.

It is often said that North Koreans are more interested in foreign media that entertains than openly subverts (which is my excuse to plug Baek Jieun’s book, “North Korea’s Hidden Revolution”). To be sure, this is true of most human beings anywhere. Neither Barack Obama nor Donald Trump has as many Twitter followers as Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, or Taylor Swift. But once Thae Yong-ho became receptive to political criticism, openness became active interest, and active interest became a compulsion. 

But he also said that North Korean diplomats overseas are, nevertheless, eager to hear news on North Korea as reported by foreign media.

“I was checking reports by South Korean media on North Korea and Yonhap News agency’s section for ‘North Korea’ every day on my smartphone. I read every news story related to defectors who settled in South Korea. I shed tears reading their stories, and [somehow] garnered the courage to defect as a result of them,” Thae said.

“All North Korean officials and their family members overseas are checking South Korean news every day. By tomorrow, every North Korean diplomat abroad will be aware of what I have said right now.” [Daily NK]

Which is my excuse to (again) plug Commander Skip Vincenzo’s report on information strategies to sway the North Korean elites away from war, and toward peace and reunification.

It is always a minority that takes an active (rather than a passive) interest in political criticism. That tendency must be especially pronounced in a place where thoughtcrime means a quick and painful death for you, and a slow and painful death for the people you love. But this minority produces a nation’s civil servants, its generals, its corrupt officials, and eventually, its dissidents and rebels. When it arrives at such a political consciousness, this minority exerts a disproportionate influence.

“As the Kim Jong-un regime took power, I had a slight hope that he would make a rational, reasonable regime because he must be well aware of how the world runs after he studied overseas for a long time,” Thae said. But Kim turned out even more merciless than his father and late leader Kim Jong-il, he said, citing the shocking public execution of the leader’s once-powerful uncle Jang Song-thaek in 2013 as one of the moments of awakening that eventually solidified his decision to defect. [Yonhap; see also]

Thae is uniquely positioned to help other doublethinkers in Pyongyang — and in its embassies abroad — make the same journey he made. No wonder the regime is making him its Emmanuel Goldstein; its survival may depend on that. For Thae, the end of his journey from oligarch to dissident came when he gathered his sons and said, “I will cut off your slave chains as your father from this moment.” 

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