Thae Yong-ho is giving North Korean resistance a voice & a vision it never had

Sometime today, Arirang TV will publish an exclusive, hour-long English-language interview with Thae Yong-ho, who was North Korea’s Deputy Ambassador to the United Kingdom until the day last August when he gathered his two sons and gravely told them that he was cutting off their “slave chains.” NK News has a summary of the interview here. I’ll link it when Arirang posts it. (Update: Here’s the full interview, and a Wall Street Journal story on Thae by Jonathan Cheng.)

Of course, Thae isn’t the only North Korean diplomat to defect last year, nor is he even the highest-ranking North Korean to defect (Hwang Jang-yop was). He isn’t exactly a public intellectual in the sense that former court poet Jang Jin-sung is, and even now, no North Korean emigre exceeds Jang’s polemic talents or charisma in the use of the written word. Yet none of those men had Thae’s charisma in the spoken word, in either English or Korean. In retrospect, the glowing assessments of Thae’s skills were more than the soft bigotry of low expectations. Thae’s charisma is real, and it gives him a heretofore untapped power to persuade the world that North Korea’s political system has become destructive of the lives, liberties, and happiness of its people — and will soon become destructive of ours, too — and that, consequently, it must be altered or abolished.

Americans often overuse the word “revolutionary.” Thae’s words are literally revolutionary. In recent interviews, he has unambiguously called for the North Korean people to rise and overthrow the state and predicted that North Korea won’t last five years. Here’s a preview of Thae’s Arirang interview:

Before Thae, no North Korean emigre spoke of his homeland with this same clarity of principle. Consequently, none of them represented a greater danger to the survival of the regime.

“We should collapse the Kim Jong Un regime by causing an internal revolt… I am 100 percent sure that we can do it,” Thae said. “The South Korean government and people should enlighten North Korean citizens to make them stand against Kim Jong Un’s reign of terror.”

Thae has been publicly repeating the argument since a closed-door news conference with South Korean reporters on December 27.

Thae made his debut on a South Korean local talk show broadcast by TV Chosun called “Moranbong Club,” which features North Korean defectors discussing North Korea-related topics.

The former diplomat argued the South should designate “the capital city of Pyongyang and soldiers at the truce line” as a target for the influx of information.

“Both richest and poorest groups of North Korea stay in Pyongyang and those who has power and don’t [co-exist],” Thae said. “There is the sharpest conflict and confrontation in Pyongyang.” [NK News, Dagyum Ji]

In South Korea, Thae is becoming a celebrity dissident. For the rest of the world, he threatens to emerge as a standard-bearer of resistance — a Dalai Lama, a Solzhenitsyn, an Armando Valladares. He validates what many of us have suspected all along that North Koreans were thinking and couldn’t say.

The diplomat’s decision to defect from a regime he had spent his whole life defending did not happen overnight.

Instead, his misgivings had been simmering for two decades, even as he went around Europe espousing the superiority of the North Korean system. They finally reached a boiling point when Thae Yong-ho realized that this regime, to which he had been so loyal, expected him to lie to his children.

“I’ve known that there was no future for North Korea for a long time,” Thae told The Washington Post in his first interview with the foreign media since his escape from the North Korean Embassy in London, where he served as deputy ambassador.

But last summer, he realized his hopes had been misplaced that supreme leader Kim Jong Un, who was educated in Switzerland and is only 33, would turn out to be a reformer. Thae fled, together with his wife and his two sons, now ages 19 and 26.

“Kim Jong Un is still young,” Thae said. “I was afraid that my even grandsons would have to live under this system. I decided that if I didn’t cut the chains of slavery off [my sons], they would complain, ‘Why didn’t you let us be free?’?” [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

Thae is also adding value to our national policy conversations, confronting the delusions of Americans, confirming that Kim Jong-un will not disarm, will escalate his provocations, and intends to pursue nuclear weapons that can strike our homeland. He is also confronting the delusions of many South Koreans, warning them that Kim Jong-un means to use that capacity to extinguish the freedom and independence of their homeland.

“North Korean people consider Barack Obama’s strategic patience a ‘tactical disregard.’ The U.S. sits by and watches the North conducting nuclear and missile test believing the country will collapse,” Thae said. “(Strategic patience) was ‘a quite favorable condition’ for the North.”

The North had assumed Hilary Clinton would win the election until last summer, he said, as the North considered Trump an “abnormal figure” who could “only represent some strata of the U.S. society” but “wouldn’t win an election.”

Despite Trump’s victory being an unexpected result for the North, Thae argued the North’s foreign diplomacy would maintain its hardline against Washington. Thae also predicted Pyongyang would continue to make “a series of provocations” in 2017. [NK News, Dagyum Ji]

One of those provocations, I predict, will be an attempt by Pyongyang’s agents to assassinate Thae. I hope he’ll be careful. I hope the National Intelligence Service will guard him and his family well.

It’s amusing to see how, to a certain species of North Korea watcher, North Koreans are only to be believed when there are minders about, listening for them to say the wrong thing and call them back to Pyongyang (to God-only-knows-what fate). Once a North Korean defects, anti-anti-North Korean and pro-North Korean critics invariably say that he or she has an “agenda.” It’s tempting to say that the truth is some middle position. After all, Thae unquestionably does have an agenda. But was that any less true before Thae defected, when it was his job to lie to us? I imagine that his agenda then would have been to preserve his life, and the lives of his wife and sons, and the small liberties he had won for them. The question isn’t whether Thae has an agenda. The question is which agenda you’re more inclined to accept. The question is whether Thae Yong-ho’s agenda now is his own, and whether you believe he has enough knowledge, independence, and veracity to be believed.

So, we return to the question this blog asked ten years ago: “Can they do it?” Given the current isolation, exhaustion, terror, and lack of organization of the North Korean people, only a military coup has any chance of success today. Could the people nonetheless acquire the means to resist, to tip the balance against the state, or force their rulers to decide that unless the system is altered, it will be abolished? I believe so. I also believe we can catalyze that possibility.  It won’t involve a single strategy, but a combination of strategies tailored to different demographics and systemic vulnerabilities. If they can succeed, they might do more than give life, liberty, and happiness to 23 million imprisoned Koreans. They might just spare 50 million other Koreans from the same fate.


  1. I notice that some commenters on the NK News site are bashing Thae as a hypocrite. I want to ask them to walk a mile in his shoes. If you rose to the level of a senior apparatchik in KJU’s government, what would you have done? Would you have had the courage to resist? And now he is most definitely sticking his neck out to speed the revolution, when he could have gone into a de facto witness protection program and played roulette in Macau for the rest of his life. Give credit where credit is due!


  2. Many South Koreans see this guy as a traitor and that he is a South Korean government creation. They will apologize for North Korea no matter what North Korea does.


  3. Pro-North forces in the USA apparently have a deep fear of Thae.
    Their posts on US pro-North sites evince not just the usual hatred
    (calling him a traitor and all that), but palpable fear that he has
    done and will continue to do great harm not only to the North itself,
    but to the pro-North movement within the USA.


  4. This interview really did not tell folks here in the One Free Korea space anything new, and that has no relevance because former Deputy Ambassador Thae is obviously a fine, brave gentleman who spoke / speaks up and out against a gigantic wrong. I believe this interview occurred in South Korea – and if so, it means that all three of these people, and the stage / production staffs, worked under huge strain because the interview proceeded ENTIRELY IN ENGLISH – a literally foreign language for everyone involved. This matters because I am quite sure that more than once in the proceedings, they hit rough spots that they wanted to smooth past with Korean, but they forced themselves on in English. FDA Thae / etc. obviously put this together for us in the English-speaking world (US / UK / AUS / CAN / NZ / IN / etc.) and therefore, IMHO folks in and of that world, with an interest in this issue, should watch it.

    Everyone who watches this vid will have a personal list of FDA Thae hit comments. Mine:

    1) At roughly -15:00, FDA Thae explained that NK nukes might well lead to SK and Japan doing the same thing

    2) At roughly -14:43, FDA Thae said that in turn, Taiwan would / will join in

    3) At roughly -13:36, FDA Thae said that with nuclear weapons, North Korea could ” . . . threaten Chinese interests . . .”, referring to Lord Palmerston

    4) At roughly -13:21, FDA Thae said that ” . . . the simple truth of North Korea’s position of nuclear weapons can be one day . . . a really big threat to [the] Chinese . . .”

    Here at One Free Korea, I have ranted at length about all this for years; IMHO 4) above is the money quote. They say that great minds and psychopaths think alike. I can’t really judge myself, of course, but after FDA Thae defected with his family, he objectively became a great mind . . .


  5. Thinking more about this. The doves on NK are the very ones who should be most welcoming Thae’s approach of encouraging an uprising from without, because it’s the only hope for avoiding a “kinetic” outcome if you believe as I do that no US president will permit the DPRK to get a first/second strike capability.