Following the recent summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae In, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, Thae Yong Ho (pictured above), who defected with his family to South Korea in 2016, spoke with Daily NK to offer his insights on the historic event.
The following is a transcript from the interview and has been edited for length and clarity.
Daily NK (DNK): What are your thoughts on the inclusion of the words “complete denuclearization'”in the Panmunjom Declaration?
Thae Yong Ho (TYH):The declaration states the North and South are moving towards achieving denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. While the words are ‘the North and South,’ the two countries hold different understandings of what “denuclearization” means in practice. For South Korea, I think it means that any temporary stationing of US nuclear weapons would not become permanent and that the US would pledge not to use nuclear weapons under any circumstances on the peninsula.
DNK: How do you think North Koreans will be affected by news of the summit in state media?
TYH: People in North Korea have been talking about the denuclearization of the Peninsula for decades, actually. Their first demand is for the US to “withdraw all nuclear weapons.” But the US did this in 1991. Second, other US nuclear-related military assets are a problem for them. For example, even now, during joint US-South Korean military exercises, the US utilizes nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
North Korea wants to put an end to their use. Third, they want South Korea to receive guarantees from the US that, as part of their military alliance, nuclear weapons will never be used against North Korea. So this talk is not new to North Koreans. Hearing that an agreement was made during the summit regarding denuclearization, people will immediately think of it as a victory for North Korea.
DNK: Will the North Korean authorities call it ‘Kim Jong Un’s Great Victory’?
DNK: Does the North really intend to denuclearize? There are those who will never believe that the North is being sincere.
TYH: Nuclear weapons are the last line of defense for Kim Jong Un in maintaining the Kim family regime. During a session of the 7th Congress held on April 20 just a week before the summit, Kim Jong Un confirmed what the nuclear program means to North Korea. To Kim Jong Un and North Korea, nuclear weapons are a fundamental guarantor of peace on the Korean Peninsula, and will for perpetuity fulfill that role in achieving happiness and prosperity on the Peninsula.
The Party Congress adopted the stance that the North can never under any circumstances give up their nuclear program. So from North Korea’s view, sincerely vowing to dismantle their nuclear program is simply not possible.
In the latter part of the 1990s, tens of thousands of North Koreans died of starvation. When famine and starvation occurs in other countries, people generally blame it on the inability of the country’s leader to provide food and a means of survival for the people. But North Korea at that time possessed the necessary funds to feed its people. The leaders, however, chose not to use money to feed the people, and instead used it to develop the country’s nuclear program. So could North Korea really get rid of these nuclear weapons which were created out of the starvation of tens of thousands of its own people? I believe this is something North Korea and Kim Jong Un simply cannot fathom doing.
DNK: North Korea nevertheless promised to halt all nuclear and ICBM tests and shut down a nuclear weapons test site. How do you assess these moves?
TYH: Maintaining the nuclear weapons that they have thus far created, North Korea can now throw away both the past and future. In other words, the North can now give up the facilities used to produce nuclear materials or develop or test these nuclear weapons, and they no longer need to produce or test any additional weapons. Their new present situation now frees them from the past and the future which may have continued from that course. The North’s current capabilities are believed to be enough to deter the US from a military attack and represent a powerful enough show of force towards South Korea and Japan as well.
DNK: Is there anything else in the Panmunjom Declaration that caught your attention?
TYH: I think overall the declaration was a success. But it is what follows the declaration that is most important. There have been a lot of these joint landmark agreements between the North and South in the past, but the goals did not become a reality and all ended up being important only in the moment or for that particular occasion. I think this happened because the text of the agreement was not followed and the fundamental issues were not properly addressed.
So many people think that this time, we must go easier on the North. But I do not agree with this sentiment. Knowing how the North Korean system really is, they must be treated just as a potter shapes their clay, sometimes breaking the mold or making mistakes but always reshaping and fixing it, building it up. If this is the case, the declaration could end up being good for the South Korean people.
DNK: What do you think about the North Korean people perhaps changing their view of Kim Jong Un after the summit?
TYH: A lot of experts and journalists are saying that Kim Jong Un’s image and the way people view him is now different. The Kim Jong Un who until recently was largely seen as the devil incarnate is now thought of as an angel of peace not only by some media outlets but also increasingly among ordinary South Koreans. This is an issue that can only be resolved by focusing on the facts.
Until recently, South Koreans were primarily fearful of the North’s nuclear weapons and thought that this devil achieving possession of nuclear weapons would be an extraordinarily horrible thing. But transformed in the eyes of some into an angel, the nuclear weapons in his hands now appear as an olive branch. Carrying on with this image, in two or three years people will be saying, “Who cares if North Korea has nuclear weapons?” and “Even if Kim Jong Un has nukes, he’s not using them on us, so…” If these kinds of sentiments become more common, we will eventually see people becoming content with a sort-of ‘peace alongside nukes.’ This is the most dangerous outcome.
DNK: What do you think about Kim Jong Un openly talking about defectors during the summit?
TYH: The previous leaders of North Korea did not even acknowledge the existence of a defector community in South Korea, and North Korean people viewed defectors as turncoats or traitors. But there are now over 30,000 defectors living in South Korea, and many, not content with merely settling into their new lives, are actively working in the struggle for unification. Kim Jong Un is slowly coming to terms with the fact that he can no longer ignore the defector community.
DNK: Do you think either North or South Korea actually possesses the will to unify?
TYH: To me, it seems that many ordinary South Koreans and young people are not that interested in unification, questioning if it’s really necessary. North Koreans are the complete opposite. With hallyu (South Korean music and dramas) gaining popularity these days in the North, ordinary people there have come to know a lot more about the South and are feeling an intense longing for South Korea. I’m not sure if this is exactly right, but many North Koreans have hopes and dreams about unification, thinking, “Once we unify, will we be able to live well just like the South Koreans do? Will we be able to get our own car and go on vacations abroad like they do?” North Koreans today hold significantly high hopes and desires for unifying with South Korea.
DNK: But what about the North Korean leadership, what do they think?
TYH: Unification by absorption under the South Korean system is the thing Kim Jong Un fears most. The South has over time developed a considerably superior economy, military, and international image than the North. Kim Jong Un understands the differences very well and is also aware of how unification by absorption went for the leadership of East Germany. It is something he very much does not want to happen to North Korea.
DNK: How do you think North-South relations will develop going forward, and how do you think North Korea will try to utilize this development to their advantage?
TYH: Right now, Kim Jong Un is fretting over the summit with Donald Trump, unable to know exactly what Trump is aiming for. One day Trump is threatening a military strike on the North, but then later he says he wants to talk to Kim. So Kim Jong Un cannot predict what Trump is thinking. Kim has thus been trying to improve relations with South Korea this year and will likely continue to see this path as viable.
DNK: So hope for unification is rising among North Koreans as relations improve with the South. But meanwhile, the North Korean authorities are continuing to crack down on the viewing of South Korean media and other restrictions.
TYH: That’s right. As relations improve and exchanges or other inter-Korean activities increase, so will surveillance and restrictions on the people. The two countries actively engaged in exchanges for around 10 years during the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun administrations, with the North receiving various kinds of aid from the South. But many people were subject to surveillance and punishment at that time. One religious organization provided aid and even built an apartment building in Pyongyang, but there was a lot of corruption among the individuals involved in the process, and many of them were found and executed.
Individuals including Kim Hyon Chol and Ri Son Gwon are now tasked with work related to South Korea because of the previous elimination of limits on this kind of work. But the basis of the North Korean system is that South Korea is their enemy. It is natural that crackdowns and restrictions would remain strong and that punishments including executions would remain under a situation where you are conducting exchanges or receiving money or other aid from a mortal enemy.
DNK: Moving to the topic of the US-North Korea summit, what needs to come out of this for it to be considered a success?
TYH: It is extremely difficult to predict at present. Personally, I think Kim Jong Un will never agree to the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantling (CVID) of the nuclear program that the US is currently calling for. It is not yet possible to know whether Trump will hold strong to demanding CVID or if he will agree to some compromise. In truth, it is only possible to accomplish CVID with a nation that has already been defeated, when their sovereignty is void and your troops occupy their land and can comb through every inch of it. It has never been done with a nation that retains its sovereignty.
And from the North Korean perspective, they cannot just give the US access to everything. Let’s say the US wants to enter one of the North’s political prison camps, claiming they may be hiding ICBMs there. Would the North really comply? No, they cannot. There are countless areas of the country completely surrounded by guard posts, where access is restricted only to the Kim family. But inspectors would have to have access to the entire country in order to verify the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, wouldn’t they? This, however, is impossible.
DNK: Practically speaking, you are saying that complete denuclearization is currently impossible?
TYH: Exactly. The issue is America and to what extent they will or will not compromise with North Korea. Under drafts of the 1991 Joint Declaration on denuclearization (between North and South), each side would have been able to conduct inspections of the other. The North would request access to something and then go down to the South to inspect it, and the South would do the same for areas they wished to see in the North.
But North Korea opposed this concept in the end and it was reduced in the final declaration to say that any inspection would be carried out only after the two sides discussed and agreed upon the specifics of any given request. In the end, what was decided was something akin to if students and school officials were required to negotiate the results of their college entrance exams. This is why the agreement failed. If the US and North Korea decide on a system where only agreed-upon locations can be inspected, the result will be a scam of similar nature to the 1991 declaration.
DNK: What if Kim Jong Un takes a more cautious approach to his negotiation strategy with the US?
TYH: The question is whether the US is currently interested in actually completely ridding North Korea of its nukes or if it is merely an issue of the North coming under compliance with the existing nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). If the US cannot achieve its goal of denuclearization and North Korea is allowed to become a legitimate nuclear power, then the fundamental authority of the NPT will be seriously called into question.
So the US may choose to try and eliminate the North’s nuclear weapons only to a certain extent, and then say to the world that “North Korea has been ridded of its nukes” or that “America has created a denuclearized North Korea.” Then North Korea could say, “We have completely gotten rid of our nuclear weapons.” This scenario could be in the interest of both parties. A compromise could come from this path.
And if they choose this way, the Koreas could be on a fast track towards signing a peace treaty. Under this scenario, the North would not immediately bring up US troops in South Korea or joint US-South Korea military exercises. Instead, they could go ahead and sign the peace treaty, then lay low and not initiate any provocations, allowing South Koreans to see the new peaceful situation on the Peninsula. Then, South Koreans themselves may begin to question the presence of US troops or even begin to oppose their presence outright, causing a rift between the US and South Korea.
DNK: Some believe that the current developments with North Korea are due to the pressure of international sanctions. Do you believe sanctions will be necessary going forward?
TYH: Of course they will be. Until now, sanctions on North Korea have been enacted through the UN, and have been largely premised upon the North’s nuclear development. But now, where it will be hard to completely verify the North’s denuclearization, any lifting or easing of sanctions would only be perceived as recognition of their nuclear status. If the system of sanctions which has until now denied North Korea this recognition collapses, they will be well on their way to becoming a legitimate nuclear state, regardless of who refuse to accept reality. So I think that before we can completely verify the denuclearization of North Korea, the current system of sanctions will need to be maintained throughout.
DNK: There is a divide in opinion over whether or not human rights issues should be raised in current negotiations with the North. What do you think?
TYH: The North typically focuses on nuclear or missile issues when their international counterparts raise human rights issues. They force the world to turn their attention away from human rights towards these other issues. Their strategy in this regard is to force the human rights issue out of the priority spot. In this way, solving the nuclear issue is the way to finally address the human rights issue.
DNK: How do you think all of this will turn out on the Korean Peninsula?
TYH: I think the thaw, the current improvements to North-South relations will carry on for a long time to come. Nobody wants a return to the precarious situation just before this. Leaders around the world are talking about the “denuclearization of North Korea,” but in truth they are all happy to trade actually accomplishing that goal for at least the current peace – a mutual freeze to maintain the peace and ensure that the North does not carry out any more provocations. I think we are seeing things trend towards this direction.
DNK: What do you think North Korea ultimately wants out of all of this?
TYH: Again, what North Korea fears most is absorption into South Korea. In order to prevent this, they need to solve their economic problems. Yes, economic development fundamentally contradicts the North’s current (ideologically-based) economic system, but overspending on their military is also to blame. But with nuclear weapons under their belt as a pillar of their survival going forward, the immense funds, manpower, and other resources dedicated to their military can now be used towards economic development instead. North Korea is a highly-organized society, where the people dutifully follow whatever the party and leadership decide. The problem is how North Korea can allocate its resources. But I see them using their resources to establish peace and improve the lives of the people.