Before I get to what Thae Yong-ho did not say at CSIS on Tuesday, and when he testified the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday, let’s start with what he did say. By now, you probably know that Thae was North Korea’s Deputy Ambassador to the U.K. before he defected in August 2016. This week, Thae made his first visit to the U.S. I could not have been more impressed or moved by his words. Do yourself a favor and bookmark this post. Then, go back this weekend and watch both events. Do this not only because Thae’s ideas are an essential, articulately formed North Korean perspective about the greatest national security crisis of our time from a man who obviously cares deeply about his nation and its people, or because he risked his life and the lives of his wife and children to deliver that perspective. Do it so that you can also see how badly the media distorted Thae’s remarks when it “reported” on them. Here is video of Thae’s remarks at CSIS:
In all the years I’ve been going to hearings of this Committee, I’ve never seen members or staff more interested or engaged than they were when Thae testified yesterday. It was literally standing room only for staff. Fresh-faced twenty-somethings and wizened Hill veterans alike filled the flanks of the hearing room, hanging on every word. Although I can’t do justice to Thae’s complete remarks in this post, I’ll attempt to summarize his main points from both events, in the approximate order of the length and priority Thae himself gave them.
– Thae spent most of his time calling for a much greater emphasis on information operations and subversion inside North Korea, contrasting the potential value and low cost of such operations against the high cost of our military forces in South Korea (or, God forbid, a war). He called for different information strategies for the Pyongyang elites and the poor everywhere else. He called for satellite TV broadcasts into North Korea and for smuggling in small SD cards (which the kids in Pyongyang call “nose cards” because they hide them inside their noses — yeah, ick).
– Thae said that broadcasts to North Korea should dispense with blunt polemics and epithets (of the kind that in my view, and apparently Thae’s, the South Korean right lazily resorts to). Instead, he called for informing North Koreans of the natural rights they ought to possess: to a living wage, and not to have their pretty daughters taken away to Pyongyang to work at elite-only hospitals or dance troupes, or to be used as modern-day palace courtesans.
– Thae’s most subversive statements questioned the family legitimacy of Kim Jong-un, noting that Kim Il-sung never accepted Kim Jong-un’s mother — whom Kim Jong-il expropriated from her husband — into the royal family. He pointed out that Kim Jong-un has never produced a photograph of himself with Kim Il-sung for this reason, and that few North Koreans even knew that Kim Jong-un had an older brother before Kim murdered him. Kim Jong-un’s parentage is now deemed so sensitive inside North Korea that before he took power, Kim Jong-un released a short film on his family history to a small group, which Kim’s advisors later urged him not to release. Everyone who saw it was later purged. Thae believes that to broadcast this film, which was recently still on YouTube, to North Korea would cause North Koreans to question Kim Jong-un’s claim to be the rightful heir to Kim Il-sung. (I don’t have time to get you a link at the moment; see Thae’s CSIS remarks.)
– Kim Jong-un was not properly prepared for his own succession. Not only was he not prominent in the royal court before 2009, he was hidden from view. In January 2009, none of the North Korean diplomats even knew who Kim Jong-un was. Then, one day, they were all told to start singing the song “Footsteps.” The fact that the botched currency “reform” came later that year causes Thae to infer that Kim Jong-un pushed for or supported it. Thae also thinks the failure of this initiative convinced Kim Jong-un to resist broader economic reforms, while avoiding large-scale crackdowns on the markets. Only later were the diplomats even told the name of their new master, and they still don’t know the year of his birth (by contrast, the year of Kim Il-sung’s birth is the year zero in the Juche calendar). Kim Jong-un was and is obsessively insecure about the degree of respect he commands among the hard-faced generals who surround him, which is why he occasionally shoots one for dozing off during a speech.
– Thae nearly brought himself — and me — to tears when, near the end of his remarks at CSIS, he spoke of his own decision to defect. Thae and his family were nearing the end of their time in London, and his high-school-age sons contemplated a life without Facebook or the internet. Intense discussions followed: Why can’t we have the internet in North Korea? Because if people knew the things you knew, they’d ask questions. Thae must have believed that this knowledge would endanger them all, and worse, that his sons would never forgive him for throwing away the chance to live freely.
I believed the best legacy I could leave for my sons was to give them the freedom that is so common to everyone in America. Had we not defected, I feared that someday my sons would have cursed me for forcing them back to North Korea. They were used to online gaming, Facebook messaging, email and internet news. I believed my sons would suffer a lot if they returned to the North Korean system. Indeed, how could any boys raised in the London education system and familiar with freedom of thought ever go back and re-acclimatize to life in North Korea? I could not confiscate freedom and enjoyment of liberty from them. I could not take back the happy smiles of my sons by bringing them back to North Korea. I could not force my sons to pretend to be loyal to Kim Jong Un and the North Korean system and to shout ‘long live the supreme leader Kim Jong Un!,’ ‘long live the socialist paradise of the DPRK’ – like I did all my life. [Testimony of Thae Yong-ho, House Foreign Affairs Committee, Nov. 1, 2017]
– North Korea’s military has standing orders to retaliate if they see evidence of “fire and fury” from a U.S. or South Korean strike. It’s unlikely that a first strike could stay “limited,” and likely that it would instead cause massive loss of life.
– Thae refuted the conventional wisdom that Kim Jong-un only wants nukes for self-defense, and broadly confirmed my theory that Kim Jong-un plans to leverage his nuclear arsenal to gradually, then suddenly, subjugate South Korea by forcing Seoul to weaken its defenses and negotiate U.S. forces out. About halfway into the hearing, Congressman William Keating (D, MA) asked Thae a question about stabilizing post-collapse North Korea. Thae apparently misunderstood Keating’s question and started talking about North Korea’s plans to “stabilize” the South. Keating tried to get Thae back on his question, but Chairman Royce stopped Keating because he — like me — was even more interested in what Thae was saying about Pyongyang’s intentions. Watch the whole exchange at 1:32.
– Specifically, Thae said that Pyongyang’s plan was inspired by the fall of South Vietnam and the recession that played a significant part in denying Saigon the capacity to fuel, arm, and maintain its big-on-paper army. Pyongyang views the withdrawal of U.S. forces and consequent capital flight as the cause of that recession. In fact, the recession was a global one. Several factors converged on South Vietnam, including the oil shock, the loss of U.S. development and military aid, and the fact that fewer American paychecks were being spent on Tu Do Street. But the general model isn’t far off from what I’ve been ranting about for the last several years, but for some variations. For example, I expect the silencing of men like Thae to be one of Pyongyang’s first objectives, and I’d imagined that Pyongyang would try to throw the South Korean economy into crisis with limited artillery attacks in areas with inflated real estate prices, or by turning the economically vital air and sea lanes near Incheon into conflict zones. Thae’s chronology of the fall of South Vietnam is a bit off, too: the U.S. had largely “Vietnamized” the war and drawn down its forces by 1972. The Paris Accords followed in 1973. By then, South Vietnam was experiencing a major recession. But as I sat behind Thae listening to him, I finally understood the “then suddenly” part of Pyongyang’s plan to bankrupt Seoul, at least as Pyongyang sees it.
– We must persuade the elites in Pyongyang that they will have a future in reunified Korea, or they will resist it. But because of Kim Jong-un’s recent purges, the elites doubt that they have much of a future under his rule.
– We should continue to expand sanctions. It’s too early to tell if they’re working.
– Kim Jong-un’s greatest fear is actually an internal uprising. Thae elaborates on this near the end of his remarks at CSIS, before the first audience member question.
– Oh, yeah, and we should also try to talk to Kim Jong-un before we start a nuclear war. Thae didn’t say we should offer a freeze, or a peace treaty, or an aid package, or an industrial park — none of that. Just this:
Some people do not believe in soft power, but only in military options. But it is necessary to reconsider whether we have tried all non-military options before we decide that military action against North Korea is all that is left. Before any military action is taken, I think it is necessary to meet Kim Jong Un at least once to understand his thinking and to try to convince him that he would be destroyed if he continues his current direction.
Not that it matters, but I don’t disagree with a word of it — if it’s even possible, and if we can find an appropriate format for it (Thae later conceded in his congressional testimony that it might not be). The point that I’m setting up here is that in the context of Thae’s entire written statement and his verbal remarks, this was a throw-away line without any specific proposals. It was clearly not what Thae emphasized, did not have the meaning it implied to readers, and couldn’t have comprised more than one percent of what Thae said, but it was all the media — and Yonhap in particular — heard.
As a lawyer, I’m not one for the indiscriminate bashing of professions. I’m a voracious consumer of journalism myself. I know stellar journalists and terrible ones. This week, the terrible ones showed up and reminded me why Americans have learned to distrust the media, and why Koreans should. They owed it to us to report on Thae Yong-ho’s important, perhaps historically determinative ideas. How sad for us all that they chose to report their own tired ideas instead. Yonhap’s headlines are the best example of this.
It is strictly true that Thae states at one point, early in his CSIS speech, that engagement should include engaging the regime. It is also true that “engage” is a deliberately vague word that can mean many things. Still, this headline is in no sense an accurate summation of Thae’s most important, second-most important, or third-most-important point. It is not an honest or complete reflection of Thae’s remarks in any sense.
This statement is even more misleading. If anything, Thae urged minimal engagement with a self-isolated heir who has never heard the word “no” before we go to war with him. Yonhap’s headlines, by contrast, evoke the dozens of tone-deaf, intellectually exhausted talk-to-North-Korea op-eds that think-tank nitwits inexplicably keep writing, no matter how ardently Pyongyang insists that it just isn’t interested. Thae didn’t call for any of that. He didn’t propose a freeze, protection payments, concessions, negotiations, a peace treaty, Kaesong 2.0, exchange programs to teach them how to launder money or do men’s synchronized swimming or fold paper cranes or write malicious code, or any of the other twaddle that Northwest D.C. academics and South Korean Peace Studies professors produce in bulk. He proposed a last-chance message to Kim Jong-un before we resort to war. He would “talk to North Korea” on a completely different level. For the record, I agree that it’s our obligation to try. If the alternative is war, then we should find some appropriate way (and that rules out a hamburger summit) to deliver a plain statement to Kim Jong-un that there are some interests we’re deadly serious about protecting.
But what isn’t in the coverage is even more damning: nothing about an insider’s confirmation of Pyongyang’s plausible-sounding plan to subjugate Seoul, his talk of the possibility of a “civilian uprising or his delicately implied advocacy that we encourage one, and much too little about Thae’s main emphasis — his call for informing the North Korean people about their natural rights as human beings, which is (if you’re familiar with Thae’s prior statements) clearly leading toward a “people’s revolution.” It couldn’t be more obvious that the reporters listened to the first five minutes, heard what they wanted to hear, typed out and emailed their stories, and ignored the far more important and profound ideas Thae risked his life to speak freely about. (And to think that people still doubt that Pyongyang could reach over the DMZ to censor the South Korean media!) What Thae said about Kim Jong-un’s family and political illegitimacy are certain to drive Pyongyang to lethal fury. He has made himself the Emmanuel Goldstein of North Korea and a prime candidate for assassination, and he certainly knows it. The least I can do for this brave man is give him the last word.
Q. What’s South Korea’s biggest drawback?
A. They’re too naive compared to North Koreans.
Q. What do you mean?
A. I sometimes get that impression when I talk with South Koreans. And I think to myself, ‘How will they face North Korea with a mentality like that?’