A soldier’s defection and survival inspire two peoples … and perhaps, a third

New reports on that North Korean soldier’s defection at the Joint Security Area last month have added even more dramatic detail to his story. First, we learned of the heroism of the ROK soldiers who crawled out to drag him to safety. Then, we saw the video of his escape, with his comrades just a few feet behind him, shooting at him (and thankfully, missing in most cases). 

Now we know his name: Oh Chong-song. We know his aspiration: to be … a lawyer. We also know that he owes his life to a quick-thinking U.S. Army noncommissioned officer.

When the injured soldier was loaded into the Black Hawk helicopter, Sgt. 1st Class Gopal Singh, on his last mission as a flight medic, said a prayer. He did not think the man, who had been shot five times, was going to survive.

“I could tell immediately that this guy was probably going to die in the next 15 minutes if we didn’t start working on him and get the aircraft off the ground,” said Singh, a medic in the Eighth Army’s 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade, stationed at Camp Humphreys in South Korea. [WaPo, Anna Fifield]

Crews in the area often do medevac missions for South Korean civilians, such as those who get hurt in farm accidents. Only later did the crew learn that their patient was a North Korean soldier.

It was when the soldier was loaded into the Black Hawk that Singh, who was starting his final month in South Korea and the Army, realized how serious his patient’s injuries were.

“I actually said a prayer because I saw the condition he was in,” said Singh, who is 39 and from San Antonio. “The pilots could probably tell by my voice that he was in real danger of dying.”

The personnel at the JSA had stopped a lot of the bleeding from the gunshot wounds to the shoulder, chest and abdomen, but Oh was having difficulty breathing. He was trying to sit up on one side — a sign that he might be taking air inside his chest from a wound.

Singh performed a needle chest decompression, puncturing the soldier’s chest cavity to allow the air building up inside to escape. “I knew if I didn’t do that he would probably die because once his chest cavity filled up with air, it would push his heart and lung and everything over, and he wouldn’t make it,” he said. [WaPo]

I’ve pushed the limits of the Fair Use Doctrine far enough for one day, so read the rest of Fifield’s story on your own. From there, CNN picks up the story with video from the operating room in those first critical minutes — and more grody pictures of poor Mr. Oh’s tapeworms, which I really didn’t need at breakfast. It also interviews celebrity trauma surgeon Lee Cook-jong, who credits the American medics for saving Sergeant Oh.

“His vital signs were so unstable, he was dying of low blood pressure, he was dying of shock,” Lee said. [….]

Lee describes Oh’s vital signs as so unstable that a few times during the grueling operation, he thought the defector would die on the surgical table. “It’s a miracle that he survived,” Lee said. [CNN]

It’s hard not to find this story inspiring.

“I’m very proud of him. He fled from North Korea seeking for liberty, much more freedom. It’s quite easy to say, but it’s really, really difficult to make it happen, so I admire him,” Lee said. [CNN]

Oh is recovering well enough that he can already walk on his own, despite having to fight off parasitic infestations, tuberculosis, hepatitis B, and (understandably) post-traumatic stress disorder.

He’s been plagued by nightmares, sometimes fearing he was still in North Korea, prompting Lee to hang the South Korean flag in his recovery room to remind him he was safe. “He actually asked me, ‘is it really South Korea?’ And I said, ‘have a look at that flag. Have you ever seen that flag in North Korea?’  [CNN]

The story of Oh’s defection and recovery is still big news in South Korea. How could it fail to be, with a plot that could have been an episode of “Descendants of the Sun”? B.R. Myers worries about the tendency of certain Koreans to have an excess of nationalism (minjokjuŭi) rather than patriotism (kukkajuŭi). There is some evidence that this trend has shifted toward the latter in recent years. Here is a story that cleaves that difference perfectly by contrasting a ruthless and uninhabitable society against a liberal and compassionate one. This isn’t just a story of two men. It’s a story of how governments can suppress, but not quite extinguish, what is best about us as human beings.

“People tend to say that I’m proud of my country or something, so that’s why I was trying to save Mr. Oh’s life, but it’s totally wrong, as you can see here. We are doing this job every single day.” [CNN]

Meanwhile, Sergeant First Class Singh, who is preparing to finish his tour in Korea and his Army service, has said that he “thought about going to congratulate” Oh for his defection and recovery. What a grave error it would be if U.S. Forces Korea Public Relations fails to give him that chance.

“It’s truly a miracle. From the time that I saw him on the aircraft, I thought he was going to die,” Singh said. “So to be able to see him make it, it’s been a good feeling for all of us as a crew.” [WaPo]

As a good doctor should, Dr. Lee continues to keep the boys from the National Intelligence Service away from Oh to give his patient a chance to recover, but I’ll confess that I have an intense interest in knowing why Oh did something so desperate. His diet was clearly terrible. His comrades’ reaction to his defection shows them stumbling (possibly over each other), acting confused and ill-prepared, repeatedly missing their target, and later milling around, perhaps wondering whether to cross the DMZ in a group to drag him back (which would have gotten very ugly, very fast).

All of this suggests that these soldiers’ standard of training fell well below what we’d expect in this unit. What can Oh tell us about the state of training, morale, and discipline in front-line units? Does his diet indicate that conditions for even the elite of the elite of the NKPA have deteriorated recently? Does this, in turn, say something about the targeting of our sanctions? Is it possible that, like most parts of the North Korean government, this unit is funded by a particular trading company that has been affected by them? Was Oh fearful of a purge or punishment for some disciplinary infraction, or abuse by a superior?

Then, there are questions about the obvious influence of South Korean culture on Oh. Did the loudspeaker propaganda I’ve intermittently ridiculed, or the ability to watch South Korean television along the DMZ, help inspire his defection? If so, what messages have the greatest potential to impact a North Korean soldier’s willingness to obey or refuse orders to kill his fellow Koreans? The general public may never know those answers, but these are all important things for our governments to know.

Meanwhile, and to its credit, the South Korean government is broadcasting the story of Oh’s defection and survival back to his comrades north of the DMZ. One can only hope that this story says as much to them about the nature of their society and culture as it clearly has to many South Koreans.

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Dramatic video shows North Korean soldier’s defection; doctor says he will survive

The U.N. Command, which stands face-to-face with the Korean People’s Army (NKPA) at the Korean DMZ, has released footage of the defection last week of an NKPA soldier right through the so-called-but-not-really-that-at-all Joint Security Area, or JSA:

The video shows the soldier, who may have been the driver for an NKPA general, hauling ass toward the JSA in what looks like a UAZ-469 (update: or, maybe not). The soldier slows as he approaches a North Korean checkpoint, then runs it as other soldiers briefly chase him on foot.

Even more dramatic sequences show him trying to drive across the Military Demarcation Line, getting stuck, and bailing and making a run for it with four NKPA soldiers just a few feet behind him, guns blazing. You can see one of the NKPA soldiers cross the MDL, realize his predicament, and turn back. I can’t read lips, but I’m pretty sure those lips were saying, “Ai, shippal!” Finally, after a too-long delay, possibly to await instructions, two very courageous ROK soldiers are seen crawling out and dragging him to safety.

I’d planned to do some embedded time-stops of the video until I saw this must-read post by David Choi, who giffed each sequence so well that I’ll just send you to his post and use what time I have left to make some other points. Not surprisingly, the UNC calls this an Armistice violation.

[If only we had a peace treaty for them to violate.]

Clearly, the NKPA keeps a decent arsenal of AKs in the JSA, despite the fact they aren’t supposed to have them there. A Very Angry Letter is certain to follow. You will recall that the release of the video was delayed at least once, leading some right-of-center newspapers to claim that the Moon administration either didn’t want to embarrass the North Koreans, didn’t want to be forced to send a Very Angry Letter, or didn’t want to fuel criticism of the ROK response to the incident.

I don’t blame the ROKs for holding their fire under these circumstances. The NKPA soldier’s crossing was clearly a mistake made in the heat of the moment and not worth the risk of escalation. I’m more critical of the time it took for the command to authorize the ROK soldiers to rescue the wounded soldier. Thank God the poor kid didn’t bleed to death as he lay there for more than 20 minutes with all those holes in him. The NKPA was clearly better prepared to shoot him than the good guys were to save him.

By the way, is it just me or do those NKPA soldiers look really worried about what’s going to happen to them after the incident? Watch their body language in the video.

The North Korean soldier — the Korean papers have reported that he was a Staff Sergeant, and his surname may been Oh — seems to be on the mend, despite his infestation with intestinal parasites (probably a result of His Porcine Majesty’s on-the-spot guidance to fertilize crops with human shit, because fertilizer costs money he needs for other priorities).


I sure hope that’s true. I want this young man to live — not just survive, but live. The Chosun Ilbo reports that he’s talking and breathing on his own, and Reuters has the most encouraging words — from his doctor.

“He is fine,” lead surgeon Lee Cook-Jong said at a press conference in Suwon. “He is not going to die.” [….]

Doctors conducted a series of surgeries on the critically wounded soldier, and now say they believe he will recover, despite continued risks of infection.

“Patient requires intensive care, detailed tests and observation as there is a chance his condition may worsen due to infections of his bullet wounds,” the hospital said in a statement.

The soldier show signs of depression and possible trauma, in addition to a serious case of parasites that has complicated his treatment, the hospital said. [Reuters]

But he’s going to have to live without a gall bladder and a piece of his lung. Incidentally, if you aren’t following the excellent “Noon in Korea” Twitter timeline, you really should be.

The young man is understandably traumatized by what he’s been through.

But there is also an inspiring part of our story.

“The soldier has regained consciousness and he requested to watch television,” the government official said on condition of anonymity. “For the soldier’s psychological comfort, we’ve shown the patient South Korean movies and he has recovered enough to watch television.”

[….]

“The defector is able to express his thoughts to medical staff,” the official said. “At this moment, we think that the patient has overcome a serious condition.”

To help stabilize the soldier’s psychological condition, medical staff have apparently hung the South Korean national flag in his hospital room, according to the official.

“The defector is suffering from fear and heavy stress from the gunshots that wounded him,” the official said. “To give psychological comfort that he is in South Korea, the medical staff apparently placed the South Korean flag in the patient’s room and are also treating him through psychotherapy.” [Yonhap]

Remember a few weeks ago when KCNA had a histrionic fit over a small, little-noticed North Korean human rights film festival in Seoul? I don’t think KCNA expends perfectly good adjectives ranting about things that don’t represent a threat to the completion of its plans, or to the stability of its political system. Pyongyang takes culture and propaganda so seriously because these things are structurally essential pillars that hold this regime up.

The fact that Staff Sergeant Oh’s first requests were for TV and (according to some sources I’ve seen) k-pop tell you plenty about the power of culture. So does the fact that Pyongyang has raised the penalties for possession of South Korean media. Soft power is power. We ought to be using that power to talk to the NKPA soldiers about who is denying them their right to happiness. We should be harnessing the power of culture to promote peace, starting with the men whose fingers are on the triggers.

In conclusion, this is an isolated incident that says nothing about the stability of this regime whatsoever. It is totally isolated, except for the defection of the soldier who was training to be a palace guard, or those two other line-crossers from June, or all of these other incidents. Things like this happen all the time in perfectly stable regimes, because if history has taught us anything, regimes that look stable, are.

Yes, I know: inexplicably, a few isolated ingrates don’t adore their leaders. They don’t appreciate their generous handfuls of dry corn kernels, the beatings by their officers, the constant risk of contracting (untreated) TB or intestinal parasites, or their enforced celibacy (unless they’re being raped, which they’d appreciate even less). Today, cross-DMZ defections, which were a rarity until recently, now happen at the rate of about once every six weeks. But if I know anything, I know this doesn’t mean anything.

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What’s extraordinary (and what isn’t) about a North Korean soldier’s defection at Panmunjom

It has been an eventful day along the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). South Korean authorities say that a 58-year-old Louisiana man was found on the wrong side of the Civilian Control Line, where he was doing something “for political purposes.” Details to follow, presumably.

The ROK Joint Chiefs have also confirmed that a North Korean soldier defected today through the Joint Security Area or JSA, the most visible and sensitive part of the DMZ. The soldier bolted from his guard post on the north side and sprinted for the Military Demarcation Line. On the way, his (former) comrades shot him in the shoulder and elbow.

I can’t help thinking that with better diplomacy, this could have been a simple one-for-one swap without the need for gunplay.

Fortunately, the wounded North Korean soldier made it over the MDL and fell 50 meters inside the South Korean side. (Imagine what would have happened to him if he hadn’t.) This may be one of the few people who can think back on the day he was shot twice as the luckiest of his life. Via Yonhap and Jonathan Cheng, the Wall Street Journal‘s Seoul Bureau Chief, here’s a diagram of how it all went down:

 

After what must have been the longest 25 minutes of his life, some very brave ROK soldiers crawled out under the observation of the North Koreans and dragged him back to safety. The ROKs then airlifted him to a hospital. Here’s hoping he recovers fully.

Here’s hoping, too, that his family back in North Korea will survive the experience.

Thankfully, those were the only shots fired in that incident. Still, the 25-minute delay suggests a too-lengthy decision cycle by the ROK Army command. The fact that the North Korean soldier fell on the happy side of the line should have resolved the question of retrieving him, although the ROK Army may have needed a few minutes to bring in some back-up firepower.

None of which diminishes the courage of the young South Korean soldiers who saved the wounded North Korean soldier. Imagine serving at the world’s most dangerous border, hearing gunshots, seeing a young North Korean soldier lying wounded and bleeding in a place exposed to enemy fire, and risking your own life to crawl out and drag him to safety. Those men deserve medals.

While hunting for a good image of the JSA, I also found this one from 1956, when Pyongyang clearly felt much more self-assured about the loyalty of its soldiers. A scene like this would be unthinkable today:

[source]

North Korea’s secrecy tempts us to extrapolate anecdotes into trends, and extrapolation can be a dangerous temptation, but there’s enough recent data to allow us to contextualize this anecdote. This blog carefully monitors evidence of defections, fratricides, fraggings, corruption, and other signs of indiscipline in the North Korean military. There has been ample evidence of military defections to document in recent years, at both low ranks and high (including a MiG pilot and at least two ranking officials in the security forces). That evidence was enough to cause me to ask, two years ago, whether the North Korean military was falling apart, and I’m not alone in asking that question. Two other North Korean soldiers defected through the DMZ in June of this year.

Defections from front-line North Korean units are especially significant. Those units aren’t the glorified construction brigades whose soldiers one sees hitching rides on the backs of trucks in tourists’ “rare glimpse” Flickr streams. Pyongyang posts its best-trained and most-disciplined units to the DMZ, and the soldiers at the JSA are the hand-picked elite of this elite. As Yonhap’s report notes, “The defection through the JSA marks a very rare case, given that North Korean soldiers stationed on the frontline are reportedly cherry-picked for their loyalty to the North Korean regime.” Defections across the heavily mined DMZ also involve much more risk than defections across the Yalu River. There may be no riskier place to defect than the JSA, for reasons this story illustrates well enough.

Defections at the JSA are extraordinary. I’ve searched my memory, my archives, and Google, and came up with no prior cases of North Korean soldiers defecting there in recent times. NHK claims that there were two previous defections at Panmunjom in 2007 and 1998, but my internet searches yield no other evidence of that. (If you can find any, kindly post a link or a partial text in the comments.) The closest thing I found was the case of a Soviet man who defected through the JSA in 1984, instigating a firefight that killed three North Korean soldiers and one South Korean soldier.

The maximum effective range of an AK-47 is 460 meters, so it does not speak well of NKPA marksmanship that these soldiers failed in their fratricide attempts. I’m grateful that the brave South Korean soldiers who ran out and rescued the soldier weren’t shot at. Presumably, the soldiers at the JSA — on both sides — have strict rules of engagement. That affirms that Pyongyang is, deep down, just as concerned about one incident escalating into a full-scale war as we are. Pyongyang’s rhetoric about hair triggers and declarations of war notwithstanding, its military provocations are both calculated and calibrated to induce fear and shock in the U.S. and South Korean governments without instigating undue escalation.

Consider the implications of this: at a time of even-higher-than-usual military tensions, North Korea’s most disciplined soldiers had orders not to fire at South Korean soldiers — at least, not on the other side of the MDL — but did have orders to fire on their own comrades. This suggests that Pyongyang doubts the loyalty of its most loyal soldiers, with the possible exception of the Bodyguard Command.

Oh right, I almost forgot about the soldier who was training to become a member of the Bodyguard Command when he defected in July.

Both defections must surely represent rare intelligence windfalls. I wonder why these men fled. I wonder what their stories can tell us about the potential of a message of rice, peace, and freedom to influence the cohesion, loyalty, and war-readiness of the comrades they left behind. I wonder how many lives that knowledge could save.

~ ~ ~

Update: A newer report tells us, first, that the defecting soldier is in very grave condition and may not survive, and second, that he drove to the DMZ in a car.

A North Korean soldier who defected to South Korea via the truce village of Panmunjom earlier this week drove a car to the area, the authorities said Tuesday.

“(He) then exited the vehicle and continued fleeing south” across the military demarcation line (MDL) after being shot by North Korean troops, according to the United Nations Command (UNC).

The individual, presumed to be a North Korean soldier, “initially took cover near a building on the southern side of the JSA,” the UNC said, using the abbreviation for the Joint Security Area (JSA).

Four North Korean soldiers chased him, firing shots with their pistols and AK-47 rifles, an official at the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said, citing CCTV footage of the scene.

He was hit by five rounds while running away from the North in the area inside the heavily fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ), he added.

It’s also unclear whether the North’s troops actually crossed the MDL, even for seconds, during the hunt. [Yonhap]

I’ll make a high-confidence assumption that it’s very rare for junior enlisted North Korean soldiers to own or drive cars — even to know how to drive a car. Unless this soldier stole the car, he must have been the son of someone of very high rank. That also raises the question of what unit the soldier belonged to, if just barely. Presumably, to drive to the DMZ on the North Korean side would require one to pass multiple checkpoints that would spot an AWOL soldier. The North Korean units charged with guarding the JSA wouldn’t have let an AWOL soldier from another unit into the area. On balance, then, the soldier probably was assigned to the units at the JSA, but there’s obviously more to the story.

Here’s hoping he recovers. If you believe that God intervenes in earthy events, this is your chance to make your petition on behalf of someone who will never thank you.

~   ~   ~

Update: It looks like the “car” was a military vehicle, which would explain how he got it.

~   ~   ~

Update: There are more current, detailed reports on the soldier’s defection and condition in the Wall Street Journal, Joongang Ilbo, and Stars and Stripes. It sounds like this young man’s life is hanging by a thread, and I have an awful sense of dread that he won’t make it.

He may die, but so will the system that tried to kill him, as it killed so many others. Something has changed in the last two years. For all the suffering Kim Jong-il caused, the elites mostly trusted him, and they rarely defected when he was alive. In the last two years, it has become common to hear reports of overseas workers, members of elite military units, officials in the security forces, money launderers, and even diplomats defecting. And from this incident, it should be clear that fear is the only thing preventing others from doing the same.

So while the overall number of defections has declined sharply under Kim Jong-un — mostly because of the resources he has diverted to fencing his own people in — the political rank of those who have defected has risen sharply, too. We used to see a debate that maybe Kim Jong-un’s purges meant that he’d consolidated control, and then again, maybe they meant that he hadn’t. But by now, it’s clear that he hasn’t won them over. If you listen to Thae Yong-ho, the purges have terrified and alienated the elites, just as I’d predicted. That’s all the more significant when you consider that Kim Jong-un’s main priorities have been first, to restore the isolation of his people; second, to make a lot of missiles and nukes; and third, to win the Pyongyang elites over by showering them with leisure facilities, luxury goods, and new housing.

Of course, you also could say that purges had sown discontent among the elites in the U.S.S.R. in 1938, but Stalin had two things going for him that Kim Jong-un does not. For one, he was Stalin, and for another, in a few short years, Hitler would give the Soviet people a reason to unite around him. Pray that history doesn’t repeat. On the other hand, as I write, Robert Mugabe is being overthrown by his own army. Some things seem impossible until they aren’t.

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A top defector risked his life to tell us of Pyongyang’s plans & vulnerabilities. The media put its own words in his mouth.

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:

And here is Thae’s written testimony, and video of his live testimony, at the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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.

Top N.K. defector urges U.S. to meet with Kim

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.

Top N.K. defector urges maximum engagement with Pyongyang

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?’

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Thae Yong-ho will testify at the House of Representatives next week

For those who have not read my previous posts about him, Thae was the number two diplomat at the North Korean embassy in London before he defected just over one year ago. Since his defection, Thae, who speaks excellent English, has shown his potential to be a powerful messenger to the world, and to the elites in Pyongyang, about the nature of the regime he once defended.

His testimony comes at a time when Kim Jong-un appears to have slowed a stream of high-level defections that had threatened to start a preference cascade and expose the regime’s entire overseas financial network. In recent months — perhaps coincidentally, since approximately the time Moon Jae-in took power in South Korea and appointed a former pro-North Korean, anti-American activist as his Chief of Staff — we’ve read about fewer high-profile defections and heard less from Thae himself. Whether that surge of defections has halted or merely gone unreported isn’t clear.

It also comes at a time when the U.S. government is also downplaying the importance of human rights in North Korea, sending messages that North Korean refugees are unwelcome, and merging the position of Special Envoy for Human Rights into a full-time part-time job instead of using it as a global pulpit for a more humane, tough-love policy.

The slowing of those defections also coincides with a campaign by the hard-left lawyers of Minbyun — a campaign largely ignored by the foreign press — to intimidate and expose refugees in the South. Pyongyang has also induced at least one high-profile defector into returning to Pyongyang and publicly renouncing the South, using means I can more easily guess based on past events than prove in this specific case. To gullible reporters, this campaign to publicize “re-defections” is evidence that North Koreans can’t adjust to life in a modern society. To more inquisitive journalists, and to the North Koreans themselves, the message will be the same one that Pyongyang’s assassins have delivered to refugees and Christian missionaries in China, to dissidents in South Korea, and at the airport terminal in Kuala Lumpur: “You can’t escape from us.” Perhaps Thae can better elucidate the reasons for this than I can.

Thae will testify at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, at Room 2172 of the Rayburn House Office Building, on November 1st at 10:00 a.m. Because the government of North Korea has repeatedly sponsored acts of international terrorism, security will be tight. The hearing will also be webcast live on the Committee’s website.

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Save North Korean Refugees Day: This Friday, September 22nd

What sort of place could be so horrible that a family of five would choose to die together rather than be sent there? The answer, of course, is this place, or this one, or this one, or this. Here is the story of a family that made that choice.

A North Korean family of five, including a former senior official of the Workers Party, committed suicide last week after they were caught by Chinese police and faced deportation to the North. They were heading to South Korea.

Activist Kim Hee-tae told the Chosun Ilbo on Sunday, “Fifteen defectors who were on their way to South Korea were caught by police in the Chinese province of Yunnan a week ago.”

“They killed themselves by taking poison after they were taken to Shenyang, Liaoning Province three days ago and faced deportation to the North,” he added. They were a 50-something senior official of a regional agency of the Workers Party, his wife, son and two daughters.

“Right after they were caught in Yunnan, they tried to bribe their way out through a local fixer, but once they were taken to Shenyang they probably lost hope and killed themselves,” Kim speculated. [Chosun Ilbo]

The story was also reported by Radio Free Asia. Otherwise, the U.S. and foreign press almost completely ignored the story. Did they fail to even investigate it, or did they run into a stone wall in trying to find the truth in China? I wonder if we will ever even know their names. Try to imagine the moment of that terrible choice. Imagine the words they spoke to one another as they prepared for that possibility. Imagine their thoughts as they all realized that they would have to go through with it. Imagine their last words to each other. Imagine what dreams, aspirations, and potential the children might have had to live lives that we, in our ingratitude, refer to as “normal.” They are not alone in making that choice.

China’s long-standing policy of forcible repatriation of North Korean refugees only complicates the dangers and difficulties faced by refugees. China does not consider North Koreans refugees but illegal economic migrants to be sent back to their home country, under a border protocol agreed upon in 1986.

“Many of the refugees carry razor blades to slit their wrists or arsenic with which to commit suicide in case they are forcibly repatriated,” Peters said. [S. China Morning Post]

Now, imagine the cruelty of governments that inflict this on people for no greater crime than aspiring to eat, to survive, to live a life that is better than slavery. Imagine the cruelty of a government — of China’s government — which sends them back to a fate this family judged to be far worse than the death it chose instead.

Then, come out Friday and protest against it, on Save North Korean refugees day.

Even in China, where the government has increased its repatriations of refugees to North Korea, and even pays bounties for their arrests — repatriations that a U.N. Commission of Inquiry has described as complicity with crimes against humanity — there are signs that public anger at North Korea’s belligerence is growing.

In South Korea, there are also growing doubts about the government’s commitment to the protection of North Korean refugees. The president himself is a former member of a hard-left lawyers’ group that is trying to violate refugees’ right to confidentiality. One South Korean official was recently charged with selling refugees’ personal information — information that could be used to identify and intimidate North Korean refugees by threatening their families inside North Korea, and to force them to “re-defect.” Hundreds of North Korean refugees who had made it to South Korea are unaccounted for. Most are believed to be in foreign countries, but which countries?

Our news media hardly paid any attention to the tragedy of the Yunnan Five, but Pyongyang certainly did. It launched a massive security crackdown to cover their story up, to punish those who failed to prevent their escape, and to track down anyone who might have helped them escape. In North Korea, any lapse in brutality begets greater acts of brutality, and everyone is a hostage to the obedience of everyone else. Truth is the greatest enemy of the state, because even the most repressive states know that the truth will eventually destroy them.

In the last year, the number of defectors from the military and the elites has risen. The defectors now include even diplomats, senior officials from the internal security forces, and workers posted overseas. If only for utilitarian reasons, we should look on refugees as potential allies. Consider, for example, the Justice Department documents that have cited the testimonies of refugees in forfeiture suits against regime funds. If the humanity of North Korean refugees isn’t reason enough reason to support their cause, the fact that they can help us bankrupt Kim Jong-un and break his hold on power should be. But for now, the regime is winning its war against its people. Although more members of the elites are escaping, the overall number of North Koreans who successfully escape continues to fall because of Kim Jong-un’s border crackdown.

That is why Pyongyang is so desperate to intimidate Seoul into returning refugees, or to intimidate the refugees themselves into “re-defecting,” so that it can put them on display as examples to other North Koreans, and as propaganda props to deceive gullible journalists (and thereby, us). Koreans — don’t turn away from your brothers and sisters. Americans — don’t let our government forget these people. Doing so is short-sighted. It is against our interests. It is against our values. It is not who we are. Please share this post, and join us this Friday.

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Five North Koreans, including two soldiers, have defected in June 2017 (so far)

Nat Kretchun’s latest report on Pyongyang’s efforts to control the spread of outside and subversive information suggests that the state has mostly written off its thirty- and forty-somethings as a lost generation, irrecoverably disillusioned by the collapse of the state’s rationing system, corruption, and the influx of South Korean DVDs. Instead, Kim Jong-Un is focusing his War on Glasnost on the detection of cellular signals and the watermarking of digital files to control the spread of dissent. Demographically, he is concentrating his indoctrination efforts on the younger generations. But judging by a small surge of north-to-south defections this month, the Propaganda and Agitation Department has some work to do.

  • On June 8th, a fishing boat drifted across the maritime boundary with four men aboard. As noted in this post, two opted to defect to the South.
  • On June 14th, less than a week later, a soldier walked through the mine fields of the DMZ in Gyeonggi-do, not far Kaesong, generally thought to be the place where Pyongyang puts its most disciplined forces. According to this Korean-language report, South Korean loudspeaker propaganda was a factor motivating his defection. South Korea expanded the use of the loudspeakers in February, to inform the North Korean soldiers of the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam.
  • On June 18th, a man in his 20s swam across the Han River estuary using styrofoam floats. Contra UPI, which reported that the man was a soldier, NK News’s Hamish Macdonald thinks the man was a civilian (though he does not specify in his report).
  • On June 23rd, another soldier walked through the minefields of the DMZ to defect, this time in the central sector (so presumably somewhere in the vicinity of Cheorwon).

Thanks to Hamish Macdonald for pointing out that, contra this tweet, the number of defections this month is five, not six (one of the incidents I linked here turns out to have been from 2015 — duh).

For an aggregation of other reports of North Korean military defections or disciplinary problems, click here. Collectively, the reports suggest that Pyongyang is having difficulty maintaining the discipline and cohesion of its forces along both borders, and across the whole length of the DMZ. When discipline erodes sufficiently in an area, there are small surges of defections there (admittedly, two defections may not qualify as a surge). The regime then sends inspection teams in to crack down and rotates new units in to reverse the decay. It usually works … for a year or two. Then, corruption starts to take its toll and the cycle repeats.

Any defection from a front-line until along the DMZ is telling. For at least two to occur in the space of nine days says that even in the North Korean army’s best regular units, discipline is uneven. (The qualifier “regular” distinguishes them from the North Korean Special Forces, who are the most cohesive.)

The June 14th incident suggests that information operations have the potential to catalyze more dissent. So does the fact that Pyongyang made the termination of the loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts a top demand for “resolving” that incident suggests. Pyongyang is deathly afraid of subversive broadcasts. All of which suggests that they may be one of the South’s most effective deterrents. I’ve previously taken a skeptical view of the loudspeaker broadcasts. I may have to reevaluate that skepticism.

Unfortunately, these factors almost guarantee that Moon Jae-In won’t use the information weapon, at least until Pyongyang commits some egregious provocation. Too bad. The message Seoul should deliver to the soldiers is a message of peace. That message would offend Pyongyang, but it would also help to protect the lives of Koreans on both sides of the DMZ by mitigating the threat of war.

First, the broadcasts should urge the soldiers to refuse orders to kill their brothers and sisters in the South. Naturally, their officers will tell them that they’re firing on Yankee Bastards. The soldiers should know that their targets are more likely to be South Korean cities — and the men, women, and children who live in them. Targeting them is a crime against both the law and the nation itself. And by firing on targets in the South, they will also draw counter-battery fire. The best way to prevent both consequences is to quietly disable their weapons or intentionally miss their targets (they can be provided the coordinates of unpopulated areas to target instead).

Or, we can tell them how to cross the minefields to the South, where rice, peace, and freedom await.

~   ~   ~

Update: See Hamish Macdonald’s updated post for a statement by the ROK government confirming that the June 18th defector/refugee was a civilian.

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Moon Jae-In passes an early test on North Korean refugee policy, but for how long?

In recent years, growing numbers of North Korean boats have drifted into the waters of neighboring countries. Most of these incidents probably weren’t attempts to defect, but cases of North Korean fishermen coming under rising pressure to stray further out to sea, to bring home bigger catches (which are often exported for hard currency, including to the U.S. and South Korea) and who are given only a marginal amount of fuel to make the journey home. Dozens of these North Koreans have arrived in Japan, though little remained of them by then but desiccated corpses and bleached bones.

Those who arrive in South Korea, thankfully, usually arrive alive, at least until the ROK authorities question them as to whether they wish to return to the North, and repatriate those who (it says) do. I’ve often privately wondered just how much various South Korean governments have, for political reasons, put their thumbs on the scales in questioning these North Koreans and judging their intentions. It worried me that the Moon Jae-In administration, with its origins in a viewpoint that has been, at best, ambivalent about protecting North Korean refugees and human rights, would repatriate North Koreans with a well-founded fear of persecution, in violation of the U.N. Refugee Convention. Now, we have a least one case in which the Moon Jae-In administration seems inclined to offer asylum to two of four North Koreans who drifted into South Korean waters along its east coast.

South Korea’s navy and coastguard rescued four people from two vessels on Friday and Saturday, and the four were then questioned by South Korean authorities, who offered to send them home, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said.

The two who told authorities they wanted to defect to South Korea were a man in his 50s and his son in his 20s, an official from the ministry, which handles relations with North Korea, said by telephone.

“We will provide education for them to settle in South Korea, for a certain period of time, as is usual for North Korean defectors,” the official said.

The official, who declined to be identified, said he did not know if the two had originally planned to defect or decided to only after being rescued. The Yonhap news agency said the father appeared to have planned to defect.

The other two would be sent home, as they had requested, the ministry official said. [Reuters]

On refugee policy, Moon Jae-In now faces a test. Will he bow to Pyongyang and his own most extreme supporters, and roll up the welcome mat for North Korean refugees, or will he follow international human rights law and the values we hope South Korea still shares with us? Pyongyang is making its expectations clear:

A vigorous struggle for the repatriation of detained Kim Ryon Hui and other twelve DPRK women citizens was launched in south Korea with the people of different strata involved, amid the growing demand for the liquidation of evils done by the Park Geun Hye group of traitors for confrontation with the fellow countrymen. [….]

If the south Korean authorities are truly interested in the issues of “human rights”, “humanitarianism” and “separated families”, they should pay attention to the strong demand of the families of those abductees and settle the issue of their repatriation at an early date before anything else.

It is preposterous to discuss on the “humanitarianism” and reunion of divided families and relatives, in disregard of such hideous unethical crimes as imposing bitter pains and misfortune on the compatriots by artificially making new “divided families”.

Any humanitarian cooperation between the north and the south, including reunion of divided families and relatives, can never be expected before the unconditional repatriation of the detained women citizens of the DPRK.

We will watch the attitude of the south Korean authorities and strive for the repatriation of the detained women citizens to the last. [KCNA]

See also. The pro-Pyongyang extremists at KANCC (profiled here) and Minjok Tongshin (profiled here) are also calling for sending the women back to North Korea, for what it’s worth — probably not much, except as a barometer of pro-Pyongyang opinion in South Korea, where both websites would be illegal. The pro-Pyongyang crowd continues to repeat the transparent lie that the Ningpo 12 were kidnapped, though this assertion has been tested and rejected by a South Korean court, which granted asylum to all 12 of the women. All have since been given their freedom in South Korean society, and most have been admitted into universities. You’d think that if they had been abducted, one of them would have said so by now, although Pyongyang’s agents have previously contacted North Korean refugees in the South and coerced them into “re-defecting” and making propaganda statements before audiences of gullible journalists.

If you think this is just a fringe view in South Korea, think again. More than once, I’ve highlighted the disgraceful and unethical efforts by the hard-left “human rights” lawyers’ group Minbyun to breach the women’s internationally recognized right to confidentiality in asylum proceedings, an effort that could only have been calculated to intimidate the women into re-defecting. Given Moon’s own long history with Minbyun, no one should have taken the rejection of Pyongyang’s demand, no matter how outrageous, for granted. Moon Jae-In’s Chief of Staff, for example, has a history of anti-American and pro-North Korean activism so extensive and troubling that he couldn’t pass a U.S. government background investigation, much less be granted a security clearance here. We should be thankful that Moon was at least pragmatic enough to reject Pyongyang’s demand on its face:

The Unification Ministry in South Korea has rejected Pyongyang’s demand to return a group of North Korean restaurant employees who defected from China last year.

A ministry official told reporters on Thursday that the families divided by the Korean War are a separate and different issue from North Korean defectors.

He added that the North’s move to link the return of the restaurant employees with cross-border family reunions is incomprehensible, stressing that the issue of family reunions cannot be resolved if more time passes. [KBS]

It’s still too early to let out a sigh of relief. As Moon must surely know, sending these women back to North Korea would have caused global outrage, starting with a white-hot apoplexy in large segments of the U.S. Congress. Such a decision would reveal that the alliance itself lacks the foundation of a unity of legal, moral, political, or humanitarian interests. It would militate for sending a clear message to South Korean voters that even if the lives of North Koreans mean nothing to them, such a disunity of interests will raise calls (probably including my own) for U.S. disengagement from South Korea, if only to achieve an overdue restructuring of U.S. Forces, Korea and to damage Moon’s domestic political support. Given the fact that Moon has already managed to piss off both Dick Durbin and Ed Royce over his shifting position on THAAD, he probably concluded that the last thing his voters want to see right now is a crisis in the U.S.-Korea alliance in the middle of a nuclear crisis that even Moon recognizes as existential for South Korea’s survival.

There will be other tests of South Korea’s commitment to its fellow Koreans who had the misfortune to be born north of the DMZ, of course. Moon may not be as helpful as Park Geun-Hye was in helping the next group of expatriated North Koreans who try to defect. He may also find more subtle ways of making refugees unwelcome, such as by breaching their confidentiality. Rather than returning the Ningpo 12 outright, someone within Moon’s administration could leak the locations of the Ningpo 12 to North Korean agents working in South Korea, and then allow one or more of them to “re-defect” through some lapse in security. There would, of course, be another sham news conference. (Will Ripley, take note.) The only real question is how complicit Moon Jae-In’s government is prepared to be in this sham. Evidence of complicity would arguably obligate the United States to accept North Korean refugees who, reasonably enough, would then feel unsafe in South Korea. That would also lead to frictions in the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

Decision points like this remind us why the Trump administration’s failure to appoint a Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights is an important oversight in its North Korea policy. Eventually, the administration will have to realize that the North Korean people themselves could be our most important allies in any effort to disarm, reform, and change North Korea. We will have little influence with these potential allies if they look to us as protectors and allies and we let them down. Pyongyang’s reaction to this particular decision point also reminds us that Seoul’s decision to receive North Korean refugees has the potential to be historically determinative by setting off a preference cascade among key constituencies inside North Korea, maybe even including the military. One could say that a welcoming, prosperous, and free South Korea presents Pyongyang with the most “maximum” pressure of all.

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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.

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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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North Korea needs more minders for its minders, to stop them from defecting

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about only the second group defection of North Korean overseas workers of which I’m aware — of a group of North Korean construction workers in St. Petersburg, Russia. I also took note of the defection of a young translator from the North Korean embassy in Beijing, who had been detailed to the State Security Department, translating for the minders who do inspections of the North Korean workers elsewhere in China.

It’s one thing when workers defect; that’s why Pyongyang sends out minders. It’s more concerning when the minders start defecting. And when the Obergruppenführers who mind the Pyongyang elites and all the other, lesser minders start to defect, that’s a new stage of the metastasis.

Last week, the South Korean government disclosed that a “director-level” SSD official, who “was in charge of identifying trends in public sentiment among the residents of Pyongyang,” defected last year. (That would be in addition to the colonel who defected from the Reconnaissance General Bureau, also last year.) 

According to (yes, you guessed it) unnamed South Korean government sources, this defector brought with him “confidential information on the Kim regime, and the leadership’s surveillance methods critical to maintaining control of the population.” The SSD official also reports that Pyongyang is rife with “negativity about the Kim Jong Un regime.” 

The defector reportedly told South Korean government interviewers members of his bureau were uncomfortable with Kim’s rule, and after watching “others bounce,” state agents are “bouncing,” or exiting the regime. Increasing lack of faith in the North Korean leader among the Pyongyang security officials is surprising, given that the state security agency’s chief, Kim Won Hong, is believed to be the unofficial No. 2 in political power in North Korea, according to Yonhap. [UPI]

More on that here. South Korean media are also reporting that two other high-ranking North Koreas defected in Beijing last month, along with their families. One of them is said to be the Health Ministry official “in charge of procurement and acquisition of drugs and medical equipment” for His Porcine Majesty.

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Although the Joongang Ilbo initially reported that the two men defected to (gasp!) Japan — I wonder why they’d consider that — “an intelligence source” now says that “the men are known to have come to the South and are in the process of being investigated.” The defections apparently happened several days before Park Geun-hye called on North Koreans to defect to the South. (Subsequent reports that Foreign Ministry official Kung Sok-un was purged as punishment for the defections appear to have been false.)

While others will undoubtedly disagree, I incline to the view that the recent tendency for diplomats, spies, fund managers, and vetted workers to defect is not “normal” for North Korea. Other reports also suggest that morale in Pyongyang is at a new low. The Daily NK even claims that some officials are consulting fortune tellers to choose the best time to flee. The saddest stories are of the North Korean parents who are sending their children overseas, ostensibly to study, knowing full well they’ll never return, and hatching improbable schemes to escape the repercussions they themselves could face for that.

“In North Korea, I came from a fairly affluent household, but I had a dream of learning IT [information technology] in the South,” said the defector, who asked to remain anonymous for the safety of his family, in a phone call with a JoongAng Ilbo reporter Wednesday. “My parents told me to study what I wanted to in the South and sent me here.”

His parents reported to the North Korean government that their child met with an accidental death in China.

Another source in China who conducts business with North Korea recently met with a ranking official of Pyongyang’s ruling Workers’ Party in Beijing.

“The Workers’ Party official made a request to me: ‘North Korea is like a sinking boat. I will send my child, so please take care of that kid,’” the businessman said. “I get such requests from North Korean elites from time to time.” [Joongang Ilbo]

It’s heartbreaking to think about the choices these desperate parents are confronting. A mother who sends one child away to safety and a better future consequently risks condemning her other children, and herself, to die in the gulag.

Of course, when we speak of a place where viewpoints are so absolutely stifled and the idea of scientific opinion polling is laughable, anecdotes may be the best evidence we have, which makes us all blind men feeling different parts of the same elephant. A hipster running a tour business in Pyongyang might come to believe that he really, honestly knows his guides’ and minders’ innermost thoughts, and that they’re broadly representative of elite opinion in Pyongyang. I incline to the view that the reports of abysmal morale in Pyongyang and elsewhere in the country are too numerous and consistent for them all to be wrong. A few of the recent reports of this-or-that purge or defection may turn out to be false, but there is too much evidence of a shift in North Korean elite opinion to dismiss.

The harder question is predicting the implications of this shift. Mass protests are exceedingly unlikely to break out in Pyongyang anytime soon. Viewpoints there probably vary widely between social and professional groups. None of those reports suggest that people in Pyongyang are ready to make the leap that overseas workers have begun to make — to conspire to commit acts of resistance against the state at the risk of their lives, and those of their families. This means that dissent, disillusionment, and discontent may be both widely distributed and completely isolated.

The lack of a coherent program of information operations directed at the North Korean elites probably means that the disgruntled elites lack a political consciousness or focus. But if an information operations campaign were to polarize that discontent, and if some event — most plausibly, a coup — suddenly presented North Koreans with a choice between combining in risky acts of resistance or accepting a lifetime of subjugation, I suspect that the spontaneity of many North Koreans would surprise the experts. What’s more likely for now is that in a thousand small ways, the elites will engage in petty acts of erosive corruption and passive sabotage of the system they’re supposed to sustain.

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In Russia, job holds YOU down (if you’re a North Korean)

For the second time this year, a group of North Korean overseas workers has defected to South Korea — this time, from Russia. KBS, citing anonymous South Korean government sources, first reported that “nearly ten” North Korean construction workers in St. Petersburg fled their dormitory in late August, contacted the local South Korean consulate, and expressed their intention to defect. The workers are now in the care of a human rights NGO pending their departure for the Land of Honey Butter Chips, where I can only hope they’ll punch the first person they hear saying “Hell Chosun” in the face. According to the Daily NK, their team leader may “have played a central role in the defection.”

“From what I have learned, the team leader took out 6-10 workers in his group to the worksite and then made a call to the South Korean Consulate right away,” the source said. “The defection happened in an instant under his leadership.” [Daily NK]

KBS says that “[t]he construction workers were reportedly unhappy with the poor working conditions and intense pressure to send back their earnings to provide the North with much-needed foreign currency.” They also felt “anxiety about their own safety,” which is understandable in light of a recent report that 40 North Korean workers around the world — including 13 in Russia — have died of disease, suicide, or accidents this year so far. Their sanitary conditions don’t sound so pleasant, either.

“Our comrades built a toilet in a small house and installed a dining room right there. So, someone is defecating at one side of the dining room.” [KBS]

Ah, yes, the bucolic lifestyle of North Korea’s “happy slaves” in Russia — like the one in Vladivostok who was so happy he set fire to himself and jumped off a building, or the ones whose minders cut their Achilles tendons to keep them from running away again. Or these contented members of the proletariat, seen here during some spontaneous comradely athletic solidarity exercises with their Russian hosts.

[Workers of all countries, unite. You have nothing to lose but your teeth.]

Wage theft, however, appears the most-cited reason for the workers’ discontent. Pyongyang, which increasingly relies on overseas workers to sustain it financially, is putting “relentless pressure” on them to “cough up more hard currency.” That pressure spiked again after the Hamgyeong floods.

Another source in China said since the severe flooding of the Duman River last month, the regime has been forcing workers overseas to donate US$100 to 150 each to a flood relief fund. “This kind of extortion is causing more North Korean workers overseas to defect,” the source added. [Chosun Ilbo]

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[Pictured: flood relief]

According to KBS, even under “normal” conditions, the workers earn $980 a month, of which $665 is confiscated. Then, on returning to North Korea, the workers have to pay another quota that few of them can afford. The additional taxes would have left the workers with nothing, or even with outstanding debts to some of the officials who shake them down. Some of the workers might well have concluded that they had little to lose by defecting. Still, with all the increased security due to the rash of defections this year, escape couldn’t have been easy. The Daily NK interviewed another recent defector from the same construction company, Mokran, which employs “more than 150 workers:”

On October 12, Daily NK succeeded in establishing contact with this worker who stated, “It is hardly possible for the workers to communicate with each other, no matter how close they are, due to the strict surveillance and control system. The recent group defection is, therefore, a remarkable achievement.”

“As I recall, almost 40 percent of the company workers secretly owned smartphones. So it is possible that the information they learned through their devices may have influenced their decision,” he continued. [Daily NK]

Think of all the risks these workers took. They had to obtain cell phones, conceal them, share their dissent and discontent with one another, conspire to defect, and make a run for it — all without being overheard, seen, or ratted out in a cramped and controlled environment, and in spite of the dire consequences for their families. (Which is to say nothing of the welcome they can expect from the quislings at Minbyun when they get to South Korea.)

The Chosun Ilbo and KBS suggest that the workers may have learned about the defections of Thae Yong-ho and the Ningpo 13. Pyongyang must be worried that news of these defections could spread and trigger a cascade. This incident may lend support to that concern. After all, one defection is an act of resistance; a group defection is an organized conspiracy to resist. I emphasize — as far as I know, there were no other group defections or mutinies of North Korean overseas workers until this year. As for the catalyzing effect of the cell phones, just imagine the subversive possibilities if they became available throughout North Korea itself.

It can be presumed that the recent chain of successful defections by overseas workers and officials is having an effect on the remaining workers who are being exploited under harsh working conditions. It is also likely that those with smartphones have access to reports on North Korea’s human rights violations published by the international media.

Accordingly, some are predicting further defections by North Korean workers at overseas working sites. A source from an intelligence agency has supported this assumption, adding, “There have been an increasing number of requests from overseas North Korean workers to defect through South Korean consulates. With the increased demand, people are having to be processed in a designated order.” [Daily NK]

The Chosun Ilbo‘s reporter also expects more defections in Russia, and reports that “[a]ltogether some 40 North Koreans including loggers in Siberia have defected and are staying in a shelter” there. The usual caveats about anonymous sources apply. Mind you, these defections preceded Park Geun-hye’s recent call for North Koreans to defect, but came after the North sent out more minders to prevent any further defections.

“The North is sending more officials to China and Russia to keep watch on workers there, but it seems difficult for the regime to prevent expat workers from defecting,” a government official here said. [Chosun Ilbo]

The Mokran president and State Security Department minder have since been summoned to North Korea, where the Daily NK‘s source says “it is highly likely that [they] will be held to account for the incident and possibly executed.” 

Pyongyang might also need more minders to mind its minders. According to the Donga Ilbo, a 27-year-old Kim Il-Sung University graduate and staffer at the North Korean embassy in Beijing, who was serving as an interpreter for an SSD inspection team sent to mind North Korean workers in China after the defection of the Ningpo 13 … has also defected. According to the Donga‘s sources, her job would have afforded her “a great deal of knowledge in high-level communication between the North and China.” The same report claims that another interpreter, a man in his 20s assigned to the customs office in Hyesan, defected in August and is now in South Korea. Both incidents are attributed to anonymous sources, probably within South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, so make of them what you will.

Last week and at the time of the Ningpo 13 defections, I wrote of a potential “death spiral” in which the regime would pass its financial pressures down to the workers and squeeze them for more money; minders would drive workers to the breaking point; workers would rebel, defect, or be sent home; the pressure on the remaining workers to make up for the lost earnings would increase further; and the state would increase controls over the workers and drives them even harder, pushing more of them to the breaking point. I could make an argument that this is an example of that death spiral.

And yet the state is desperate enough for money that it even risks sending former Kaesong workers to China and Russia. That might explain why negotiations a new U.N. sanctions resolution are taking so long. The U.S. side, under strong pressure from Congress, is most likely pushing to ban Pyongyang’s labor exports. Beijing must know what a financial catastrophe this would mean for Kim Jong-un.

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China just sent 30 N. Koreans back to a slow death in Kim Jong-un’s gulag

While the world is rightly focused on China’s (non-)compliance with a series of U.N. sanctions resolutions it voted for, the world must not forget that China is also in flagrant violation of the Refugee Convention when it sends people fleeing persecution back to North Korea, without affording them any opportunity to claim asylum or meet with representatives of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. And after all these years, China certainly knows damn well what happens to the men, women, and children it sends back.

Approximately 30 North Koreans previously caught escaping the country and repatriated from China have been detained for months by Sinuiju state security agents. These individuals have been subject to continual beatings by security agents during interrogation, Daily NK has learned.

“At the state security jail in Sinuiju, some 30 people who were caught in China are being held and interrogated,” a source from North Pyongan Province reported to Daily NK. “Although they were handed over by Chinese police back in April, for months the authorities have been conducting background checks and ordering them to write out their testimonies.”

This news was corroborated by additional sources in North Pyongan Province.

The prisoners are being detained in cells with leaky ceilings and are surviving on cornmeal mixed with grass and sand, and most are lacking enough energy to even sit upright in their cells. During hours of forced labor, if a prisoner collapses and is unable to get up, the other detainees are ordered to beat up that individual, reported the source.

“Although one of the women was beaten up so harshly during interrogation that she can no longer walk, she has been completely neglected and received no medical attention,” the source said, adding that no one is held accountable in the event that a repatriated defector is starved or beaten to death. [Daily NK]

The Daily NK then describes the outcome of the interrogation. First, the Ministry of State Security will repeatedly question each prisoner on why he or she left North Korea. Those who left to earn money for their families might get sent to a re-education camp like Camp 12, where torture, disease, brutal working conditions, and starvation rations all contribute to a high death rate. Some of these prisoners may yet survive long enough to be released into another prison with a lower level of security, also known as “North Korea.”

The worst fate is reserved for prisoners that the authorities conclude fled North Korea to escape to South Korea, to escape political persecution or punishment, or who met with Christians or South Koreans while in China. They will be sent to one of the camps of no return — vast political prison camps like Camp 14, Camp 15, Camp 16, or Camp 25. Naturally, large bribes from a prisoner’s family members can influence the security service’s decision.

Among the individuals apprehended was a woman in her 30s, who was caught living with a Han Chinese man in Shandong Province and forcefully repatriated by the Chinese authorities. She was charged with committing a minor offense but was detained for months. Only after her relatives in the South sent 5,000 USD as a bribe was she sent back to her home in Hyesan, reported the source.

The pervasiveness of security agents openly demanding bribes has infuriated many residents. “The fact that security agents are exploiting the leadership’s extreme hostility towards defectors is contributing to people’s underlying loathing for the regime,” the source noted. [Daily NK]

China insists that all North Koreans it repatriates are “economic migrants,” not refugees. But because North Koreans fleeing hunger and poverty are often kept hungry and poor because the state has secretly classified them as politically “wavering” or “hostile,” it isn’t always clear — even to the North Koreans themselves — that the root cause of the intolerable conditions that drove them to flee is really political.

Furthermore, even when a refugee crosses the border for an initially non-political reason, the fact that she’s certain to be tortured (or sexually assaulted) back in North Korea by itself entitles her to claim refugee status — the technical term is “refugees sur place.” North Koreans facing repatriation to North Korea are also entitled to protection under the Convention Against Torture.

So if China is willfully violating all of these standards of international law, are Chinese authorities also potentially culpable? Yes, as I’ll let the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s 2014 report explain, in a long quote below the fold (click “continue reading,” bottom right of the post).

The general rule with China is that it will violate any rule or standard to the extent it can get away with violating it. It’s long past time to raise not only diplomatic and moral pressure on China for these brutal and unlawful repatriations, it’s also time to target both the North Korean and Chinese security forces for mandatory sanctions under section 104(a)(5) of the NKSPEA. If the Chinese security forces choose to facilitate North Korea’s crimes against humanity, then they should at least do it without the use of America’s banking system. Only a credible threat of accountability will change China’s behavior.

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Defections may not foretell N. Korea’s collapse (but they could help induce it)

The defection of North Korean Deputy Ambassador Thae Yong-ho two weeks ago has tolled a ghoulish vigil in which bloggers, op-ed writers, and academics have speculated about the longevity of His Porcine Majesty. Some of them still read a long lifeline on his palm. South Korean President (and master troll) Park Geun-hye, on the other hand, sees “serious cracks” in the regime and says that the cohesion of the oligarchs is “collapsing.”

“The North Korean regime is taking no account of the people’s lives, while it oppresses the people with continuous rule by fear,” she said. “Recently, even the elite in the North is collapsing and high-profile figures are increasingly escaping their homeland and defecting to foreign countries. As the signs of serious cracks emerge, the regime’s instability is growing.” [Joongang Ilbo]

Park has several advantages over the rest of us. She probably has a good idea of what the seven North Korean diplomats who’ve defected this year — plus any other senior defectors we don’t know about yet, and those who defected in recent years — have said in their NIS debriefings. She probably has some idea of what the NIS found in their laptops and cell phones. Of course, it’s possible that she and the NIS are sexing up or spinning those reports, so the rest of us do what we do best — we speculate.

Christopher Green insists that Thae’s defection means “nothing” for the regime’s stability because Thae isn’t central to the regime’s power structure, other defections didn’t shake the regime’s stability before, and the psychological impact on the proles will be slight. Andrei Lankov acknowledges that the rise in high-level defections is significant, wisely doesn’t claim to know whether the regime will collapse in months or years, but less wisely, is very certain that the defections have nothing to do with sanctions. In an article that’s worth reading for its opening anecdote alone, Mark Fitzpatrick posits that “[s]uch defections reflect fissures in the regime,” but questions whether they “may also signal an impending regime collapse.” John Lee offers the most bearish interpretation of Kim Jong-un’s future, writing that North Korea “is just a spark away from an uncontrollable conflagration.”

In no particular order: I share Lee’s hope, but not his predictive confidence. Green’s is a dangerously tendentious prediction for uncertain times, and as we’ll see below, it didn’t take long for events to supersede it. I can’t quite reconcile Fitzpatrick’s view with itself; a regime like North Korea’s can’t be both riven by fissures and stable. I’ll meet Andrei halfway and admit that multiple factors are probably contributing to the recent defections, including the fear of political purges, self-interest outweighing a decaying ideology, low pay, lack of confidence in regime leadership, concern for their children, the loss of income from sanctions and South Korean diplomatic pressure, and officials’ fears that Pyongyang will hold them responsible for the loss of that income or for the defections of colleaguesOther analysts and South Korean officials think sanctions are also a factor, and the coincidence of events suggests that they’re right:

Both experts said that the implementation of recent UN Security Council sanctions may have been one determining factor in understanding the recent flurry of diplomatic defections.

Jeong said the salaries of DPRK diplomats are not high, meaning many of them have to make ends meet by sharing apartments, for example. And such personal economic difficulties may have pushed some of them to defect, he said.

“As the international community has strengthened sanctions against the North and surveillance of North Korean diplomats has increased, they can no longer make foreign currency as they did in the past,” Cheong said, citing old tactics such as the selling of counterfeit cigarettes or liquors.

Heightened pressure from the North Korean regime may have also driven them to the brink, the Korea University professor said.

“Kim Jong Un has had trouble in securing government funds after (the latest) sanctions, making the North’s foreign economic activities hard,” said Lim. “So, he has increased the pressure on diplomats abroad in charge of funds management.” [NK News, Dagyum Ji]

But if much of the conventional wisdom still predicts stability, conventional wisdom has a poor predictive history.

[Everything is absolutely fine.]

Most experts thought the regimes in East Germany, Romania, Albania, Libya, and Syria were as stable as Lehman Brothers, right up to the moments when each of those “stable” regimes fell. Most Sovietologists failed to predict the collapse of the East Bloc and the Soviet Union. Status quo bias is a powerful thing. The conventional analyst who predicts that the status quo will go on looks smart every day — until the day when he suddenly doesn’t. The unconventional analyst who predicts doom looks like a lunatic every day until the day when he suddenly looks like a prophet. The only day history remembers is that last one.

But prediction is a fool’s errand. Great events often start with infinitesimal and unpredictable ones — an official’s misunderstanding of an order, or the courage of one forgotten man in a crowd. Wise analysts do not predict such things. At most, they interpret a regime’s political and financial health from whatever vital signs are known. Once, the North Korean regime had a very strong political body. Since Kim Il-sung’s death, that body has decayed steadily. We don’t know enough to diagnose the disease or assess the progression of the atrophy, but defections by diplomats, like the desertion of soldiers, are contrary to the protagonists’ interests in normal times, and are not normal events. They suggest that the regime is unhealthy, but they are only symptoms. In North Korea, most of the vital signs are unknowable. Even then, they can’t predict when some infection kills a vulnerable host. 

Sometimes, it is easier to alter the course of history than it is to predict it.

The view that comes closest to my own is that of Stephan Haggard, who thinks that the recent defections could cause a financial crisis, which could lead to regime collapse. Haggard points to reports claiming that some of the defecting diplomats and officials have taken tens of millions of dollars with them — amounts which may seem small by most nations’ standards, but which are indispensable to Pyongyang when it’s under rising pressure from U.N. sanctions, the loss of its Kaesong income, and complaints that its labor exports violate the rights of the workers. The reports, however, are anonymously sourced, and they’ve been inconsistent about what (if any) amounts the diplomats absconded with.

Whatever the amounts, however, I agree that these defections could cause a financial crisis in Pyongyang. I just agree for a different reason.

A North Korean diplomat stationed in Russia defected last month, a local source said Thursday, amid a series of defections from the communist country to seek a new life in South Korea.

The diplomat from Pyongyang’s trade representatives under its consulate general in Vladivostok could have possibly defected with family, according to the source who asked not to be named. [….]

The diplomat is known to have been in charge of covering trade issues while sending necessary goods back to North Korea, according to the source. [Yonhap]

Following Yonhap’s report, New Focus International confirmed what I’d suspected — that North Korea’s former trade representative in Vladivostok was not only a purchasing agent for Pyongyang but a Bureau 39 fund manager. Vladivostok isn’t in Europe, so I’ll assume he isn’t the same person as the Europe-based slush fund manager whose defection was also recently reported (perhaps that person was the Bulgaria-based diplomat referred to here). Another Moscow-based trade rep defected in July. Then, there’s the recently reported defection in China of the man who controlled North Korea’s slush funds in Southeast Asia. All told, Seoul says at least seven North Korean diplomats have defected this year alone. Separately, “informed sources” have told Yonhap that ten North Korean diplomats defected in 2015, including another Bureau 39 fund manager based in Singapore. This doesn’t include the colonel in the Reconnaissance General Bureau who defected last year, the high-ranking North Korean banker who defected two years ago, or the diplomat based in Ethiopia who defected in 2013.

Pyongyang’s response to the defections — recalling diplomats to punish them for the defection of colleagues, recalling the families of diplomats back to Pyongyang, dispatching more security agents to surveil diplomats, and reshuffling or recalling embassy staff — risks pushing other diplomats to the breaking point.

If most of these reports of defections are roughly accurate, the NIS, CIA, and Treasury probably have a more complete map of Kim Jong-un’s bank accounts, assets, and financial networks around the world than at any time in North Korea’s history. (Ironically, Thae Yong-ho, who was posted in the capital of a U.N. Security Council member and U.S. ally with a strong regulatory and legal system, may be the least likely of these men to contribute much to that map, beyond the financing of his own embassy.)

So far, the Obama administration has abstained from taking any public action to block those funds. Its increasingly apparent failure to do this has already attracted criticism in the media, and the more Kim Jong-un provokes in the coming months, the louder that criticism will become. It’s certain to come up at a now-overdue briefing to Congress on the implementation and enforcement of the new North Korea sanctions law. The more attention Kim Jong-un attracts, the more likely it is that Congress will demand hearings on what Treasury has done to enforce the law. Knowing this should make some bankers very nervous. 

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Amid surge in elite defections, China raises bounties on North Korean refugees

The State Department, which refuses to re-designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism despite all of the recent and well-documented cases of Pyongyang sending its agents to kidnap and kill refugees, emigres, and activists — and amid reports that it is sending more hit-men now — is calling on governments around the world to protect North Korean refugees. That’s good, I suppose.

“We urge all countries to cooperate in the protection of North Korean refugees and asylum seekers within their territories,” State Department spokeswoman Katina Adams told Yonhap News Agency. “The United States remains deeply concerned about the human rights situation in North Korea and the treatment of North Korean refugees and asylum seekers. She, however, declined comment on specifics of the North Korean diplomat’s defection.

“We continue to work with other countries and international organizations, including the U.N. Human Rights Council and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to protect North Korean refugees and find durable solutions for them,” Adams said. [Yonhap]

We’ve seen recently that more privileged North Koreans are escaping in greater numbers, and good for them. But along the border between China and North Korea — which since the 1990s has been the last resort of North Korea’s poorest and hungriest people — Chinese authorities have raised the payment of bounties to catch and return North Korean refugees to Kim Jong-un’s gulag.

“More defectors are being repatriated by [Chinese] public security agents after their journey across the Tumen River into Chinese territory,” a source from North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Monday. “Recently, Chinese border patrol units and public security officials have been carrying out joint patrols, tighter inspections, and searches, drastically reducing the potential for successful defection.”

An increased incidence in reporting by local residents also plays a significant role, he added. Defectors are picked up by law enforcement in the border region before they manage to make it further afield after crossing the river, the source explained, citing a case from early August, when two women in their 30s crossed the Tumen River from Musan County and were picked up by Chinese public security forces on a tip from local residents. The women were immediately handed over to North Korean State Security Department officials.

This would be understandable if we were talking about armed North Korean soldiers, who have been crossing the border to do home-invasion robberies in Chinese border towns recently. Instead, China is rounding up desperately poor women who may be trying to escape starvation or earn enough money to feed their children.

Local Chinese authorities have for some time been relatively wont to let defector-related matters slide, according to the source. “But recently,” she added, “local governments are taking a harsher stance, perhaps because of pressure from the central government on account of perceived warmer ties with Pyongyang.”

According to multiple sources in China close to North Korean affairs, Chinese public announcements on “enhanced border security measures” are ubiquitous in border regions, promising up to 1,000 RMB for those who report illegal border crossings, residence, and employment of North Koreans. Those who personally capture and hand over North Koreans to the Chinese authorities stand to receive 2,000 RMB for their efforts.

They have also outlined stronger punishments for local residents who enter verbal agreements with North Koreans to help them cross the river or smuggle goods, threatening fines of up to 3,000 RMB for transgressors. Moreover, Chinese border guards have been ordered to shoot North Korean defectors caught illegally entering the country if they resist arrest. [Daily NK]

President Obama should raise these bounties in particular, and China’s refugee policy in general, when he meets with Xi Jinping this week. He should also ask Xi to let 18-year-old mathematics student Ri Jong-yol leave the South Korean consulate in Hong Kong for a flight to Seoul. The same goes for the reported defection of a North Korean general (and possibly, several diplomats) in China.

In fact, the two men should have plenty to talk about. On several fronts, after promising to cooperate with efforts to disarm North Korea, China has turned back in the direction of enabling Kim Jong-un’s worst behavior

If, as I expect, direct appeals to Xi’s tender mercies fail, other appropriate responses must include a sustained effort to find and block North Korean assets, starting with those held by small Chinese banks and shadow banks, and moving steadily upward in the financial ecosystem. In doing so, Treasury should prioritize identifying the assets of the North Korean security agencies that are stepping up their censorship and surveillance to seal North Korea’s borders, and to prevent so-called “chain defections.”

slave hunter

When China allowed the Ningpo 12 to escape to South Korea, some activists took an optimistic view that China was finally moderating its cruel policies toward North Korean refugees. It was never clear to me that this represented a change in Beijing’s policy, but it is clear that Beijing’s North Korea policy has recently taken a great step backward.

How cynical, brutal, and flagrantly unlawful it would be if China were, in fact, punishing North Korean men, women, and children — who are guilty of no crime but wanting to live — over its objections to South Korean missile defense.

~   ~   ~

Update: Yonhap has more reporting on North Korea’s renewed crackdown along its border with China.

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12 N. Korean restaurant workers resettled in S. Korea amid new N. Korean terror threats

Pyongyang has finally settled on a story to explain the defection of its number two diplomat in London, Thae Yong-ho. Initially, Pyongyang’s principal puppet in Tokyo, Kim Myong-chol, had suggested that South Korean agents had coerced Thae into defecting. Now, Pyongyang is accusing Thae of embezzlement and child rape, and lashing out at Britain for aiding his escape.

thatstheticket

Until very recently, the British Foreign Office had hewed in a strongly pro-engagement direction. I wonder how this rupture will affect Britain’s policy under Theresa May.

Pyongyang’s story raises more questions than answers. It’s a transparent smear, of course, but for it to be true, either the North Korean authorities discovered all of Thae’s misconduct at the same time — immediately before he defected — or else it overlooked one or both of these crimes for some unspecified period of time beforehand. Among the details Pyongyang unwittingly exposed is that even Thae, ostensibly a trusted member of the elite, did not have custody of his own passport. Clearly, Pyongyang is terrified of Thae’s potential power as a counter-propagandist. That’s why it’s desperate to discredit him now.

Amid the Great Disturbance In The Force that is the North Korean diplomatic corps this week, let’s not forget the 12 brave young North Korean women who defied a dictator, risked their lives — and, it must be said, the safety of their families — and made a break for freedom.

Ningpo 13

Yonhap reports that the women have now left the care of the National Intelligence Service and “resettled” in undisclosed locations throughout South Korea.

The Ministry of Unification said that it is true that they have begun to resettle in South Korea, but it cannot reveal further details due to concerns over their safety. [….]

The rare massive defection has garnered attention over whether the sanctions have a major impact on pressuring North Korea, as Pyongyang-run restaurants in foreign countries have served as one of main sources of hard currency for the North.

But the case has also sparked a row in South Korea over whether they defected to Seoul of their own free will following North Korea’s repeated claims that the female workers were abducted by Seoul’s spy agency. [Yonhap]

They’ve escaped one set of hardships, but they’re about to confront another. They’ll need all the support they can find from their new society.

The resettlement of the women comes amid media speculation that North Korea could retaliate against South Korea for recent high-profile defections though terrorist attacks, maybe against South Koreans in third countries, and maybe by sending assassins to kill former Deputy Ambassador Tae Yong-ho. Without knowing more, the reports could be pure speculation, but that speculation has a solid backing in history. In the last several years alone, North Korea has repeatedly dispatched assassins to murder North Korean refugees in the South.

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

One group that can’t be pleased about the resettlement is the North Korean leadership. Another is South Korea’s far left, specifically the lawyers’ group Minbyun, which tried to abuse the legal process to expose and publicly interrogate the women, as part of what I personally believe was a plan to deter more defections. Minbyun’s failure is further cause for celebration, although it may have succeeded in deterring other defections.

Life will not be easy for these women. Concerns for their safety will prohibit them from becoming going on book tours or joining the cast of “Now on My Way to Meet You.”

They’ll be lonely, isolated from family, and wracked by guilt about the fate of their families. They’ll probably be isolated from their former colleagues, to protect each other from exposure in case the Reconnaissance General Bureau finds and turns one of them, perhaps by using family members as hostages. As long as the regime in Pyongyang survives, they will wonder if they can trust even their closest friends, yet their dialects and manners will be conspicuous in a country where neighbors often know a great deal about one another. Nor would I put it past far-left groups to try to stalk and out them. But for now, at least Minbyun will have the consolation of four new victims to bully — the family of Thae Yong-ho, who recently said this about the Ningpo 12:

I just can’t process that much irony. Look for Minbyun to file for an extradition request any day now.

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Yet another North Korean slush fund manager vanishes, this time in Europe

I’m no expert, but I don’t see how this could be a coincidence.

A North Korean official managing money for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Europe has disappeared, raising speculation that he might have defected with a large amount of state funds, a local media report said Friday.

Citing anonymous sources, major local daily newspaper the Dong-A Ilbo reported that the official in charge of money management for the so-called No. 39 office of the Workers’ Party vanished in June. The office is known for running money for Kim’s regime.

The North Korean official is currently staying in an unidentified European country. He and his two sons are also under the protection of local authorities, the report claimed.

The media report, which has not been independently verified, said that he disappeared with hundreds of billions of won that had been under his management. He was reported to have worked in the same European country for the past 20 years. [Yonhap]

For those of you keeping track, in the last year, that’s one banker from Russia, one diplomat from Russia, a colonel in the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the number two guy at the embassy in London, and possibly the general who runs Pyongyang’s money laundering operations in Southeast Asia. For reasons I explained here, I also believe we know a great deal about the location of North Korean slush funds in China.

According to informed sources, 10 North Korean diplomats defected to the South last year, but the number had reached almost the same level in the first half of this year. Of these defectors, most came from the North’s overseas missions in Europe, with some coming from Southeast Asian countries. [Yonhap]

rats sinking ship

As I said about Thae Yong-ho’s defection: trends that can’t continue, don’t. By now, there can be little doubt that if U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies are cooperating, they must know where a large portion (if not the majority) of North Korean slush funds are. Of course, the North Koreans will be scrambling to move that money today. As they do, nervous bankers around the world will be filing Suspicious Transaction Reports. Gleeful regulators will tent their fingers and cackle watching them make stupid mistakes. This is a rare opportunity — too rare to waste.

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“Citizens of Pyongyang, my name is Thae Yong-ho.”

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. 


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.

rats sinking ship

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.

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