The Incredible Guts of Thae Yong-ho

Thae Yong-ho at the Oslo Freedom Forum in May 2019 (Jay Nordlinger)
An emissary from North Korea

Editor’s Note: In the current issue of National Review, Mr. Nordlinger has a piece about Thae Yong-ho. The below is a larger treatment.

People who manage to leave North Korea are often known as “defectors” — even when they are ordinary citizens, rather than government officials or military personnel. That’s because, when you are born in North Korea, you are deemed to belong to the state. If you leave, you have defected, and you are a traitor.

Thae Yong-ho is a defector in a more widely understood sense. He was North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom when he went over to the South Koreans in 2016. He is one of the highest-ranking North Korean officials ever to defect. He is something rare in the world: a messenger from a closed and isolated society, a “hermit kingdom,” as North Korea is called.

• I have met him at the Oslo Freedom Forum, the annual human-rights gathering here in Norway’s capital. Thae speaks good English with a slight British accent. He is elegant, knowledgeable, and self-assured — a man you can imagine in diplomatic work.

• He was born in 1962, and he grew up a true believer. There is little choice in North Korea. You are commanded to worship the Kims as gods. You know hardly anything about the outside world (although this is less true now than it was when Thae was growing up). He read books about Communist liberators who sacrificed their lives for the equality of man. Thae wanted to dedicate his life to that end too.

I learn something from him that I have never heard before: North Korea has a version of the Ten Commandments — with the ruling Kim, whoever he is (there have been three since the founding of the state), in place of God.

Thae attended the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies. He joined the WPK, the Workers’ Party of Korea, i.e., the ruling party. He entered the foreign ministry in 1988. And, in 1996, he had his first foreign posting — to Denmark.

• That was a revelation. He expected beggars in the street and the ruthless exploitation of workers. Instead, he found a happy, peaceful, healthy society, with ample social welfare. This pricked at the young diplomat’s brain.

He also started to see North Korea, and its ruling Kims, as outsiders saw them. In the mid 1990s, there was a terrible famine in North Korea. Thae understood that this was the result of natural disasters, and that the leader, Kim Jong-il, was doing everything possible to relieve the problem.

All North Korean diplomats, wherever they were posted, were instructed to get food aid from their host governments. Thae went to the Danish foreign ministry. They were happy to oblige. But they had questions: Why was Kim Jong-il investing millions in nuclear weapons when people were starving? Why was he spending millions on a mausoleum for Kim Il-sung (his father and predecessor) when people were starving? These were hard questions to answer.

Thae came face to face with the hypocrisy of the regime he was serving, and had been taught to revere. North Korean delegates arrived in Denmark to buy cows, for the special use of the Kim family. This would keep the Kims in dairy products and beef. Other delegates arrived to buy beer for the North Korean elites. These things were a far cry from the equality of man.

Thae began to experience “doublethink,” in Orwell’s immortal and useful coinage. Part of him held on to the true faith, the North Korean Communist faith; another part of him had plain doubts.

• He was later posted to Britain. One of his duties was to speak to Communist and socialist groups — people who loved North Korea. He duly sang the praises of his country to them. But he knew, already, that it was a false song. He felt sorry for these deluded Brits. He also felt sorry to deceive them, or to keep them in their delusions — but he had no choice: It was his job.

• Then there was the matter of his boys, his two sons. In an atmosphere of freedom — namely, Britain’s — they, too, were experiencing doublethink. And they had some hard questions for their father at the dinner table.

“Why is there no Internet in North Korea? YouTube helps you with your homework. You can go there and learn how to figure out a math problem. Our government is supposed to be for education. They say that they are doing everything possible for education. So why don’t they allow the Internet?”

Thae Yong-ho found he had to tell them the truth: If North Koreans had the Internet, they would learn things about the Kims, which would lead them to challenge the Kims’ rule. This, the Kims could not have.

The two boys were teased at school, by their British classmates. You know how schoolkids are. “You’re from North Korea? You ate your dogs, right?” “Hey, you have long hair! That’s not allowed in your country. I’m going to call Chairman Kim, and he will send someone to bring you back!” Etc.

• Periodically, the family would indeed go home to North Korea. And naturally, the boys’ friends there were curious — curious about life in Britain, curious about a world outside North Korea. The Thae boys could not tell them the truth. It would be dangerous to speak of the wonders of freedom — the Internet, an abundance of food, and all that.

They asked their father what they should do. He suggested that they re-read Oliver Twist — and give their friends some stories out of that book. About the misery and exploitation of Britain.

Yes, you can read Dickens in North Korea. A few months ago, I talked with Vladimir Bukovsky, the Russian dissident. He spent twelve years in the Soviet Gulag. He told me that, in prison libraries, you could read Dickens (and Dreiser).

• Thae Yong-ho pondered his fate, and his family’s, and North Korea’s. Maybe he could wait the Kim regime out. Maybe it would collapse before too long — certainly in his lifetime. Then, in 2009, Kim Jong-il announced that his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, would succeed him. This dispirited Thae. The end of the regime was not in sight.

• A tidbit: Thae would have an encounter with Kim Jong-un’s older brother, Kim Jong-chul, in London. Kim Jong-chul is a big fan of Eric Clapton, the British rocker. In 2015, Thae accompanied Kim Jong-chul to hear Clapton in the Royal Albert Hall. (I write about this family, among others, in my book Children of Monsters.)

• Slowly, inevitably, defection crept into Thae’s mind. He would not consider it while his family was separated. Diplomats could not have all of their children with them abroad — someone had to be left hostage, back in North Korea. So, Thae and his wife would have one son or the other with them in Britain. But in 2014, Kim Jong-un changed the policy. Now they had both of their sons with them — which changed the equation.

But what about other relatives back home? The Kim regime is a firm believer in guilt by association. If one person steps out of line, his family and even his friends and colleagues pay for it. This keeps North Koreans in line.

• There came a time when Thae Yong-ho was recalled from London to Pyongyang. Why was a mystery. Maybe they were going to punish him, for some infraction unknown to him. This happens to North Koreans routinely. They don’t know they have done something wrong until they are being imprisoned, tortured, or killed.

In 2013, many of Thae’s diplomatic colleagues around the world were recalled and then — who knows what happened to them? Apparently, they had some kind of association with Jang Song-thaek, the dictator’s uncle, whom the dictator turned against (and, of course, killed).

• Thae thought about his sons. What kind of future would they have in North Korea? Could he really consign them to that kind of life, when they had already enjoyed a free life? And what about their children, and their children? Thae decided he would “cut off slavery at my generation,” as he puts it. This far and no farther. No matter what, his sons and grandchildren and so on would not be slaves. He made a break for it.

The North Korean government called him “human scum” and, for good measure, accused him of child rape. (This accusation is a specialty of Communist governments, and of some post-Communist ones too, such as Putin’s.)

A delicate, awful question: What happened to Thae Yong-ho’s brothers, sisters, and other relatives in North Korea? Sitting here in Oslo, I don’t ask him. But previous interviewers have. He assumes his relatives are in camps. It weighs very, very heavily on him. Unspeakably so. Knowing this already, I don’t need to ask.

• I do ask him about his personal security. Does he have worries? “I have a lot of worries,” he says, “but I am heavily protected when I am in South Korea. The South Korean government knows that I am No. 1 on the assassination list.” And “I know this will go on till the last day of the Kim regime.”

• Let me pause, now, to relate something that happened in the days after Thae Yong-ho and I talked. Do you know about the recent fad of “milkshaking”? Protesters throw milkshakes on public figures they dislike. This happened to Thae as he was entering the Grand Hotel here in Oslo. The attacker, or “milkshaker,” was a Norwegian leftist, apparently.

In the Free World, hard as it may be to believe, some people despise North Korean defectors as traitors, liars, and defamers. They take essentially the same view as the Kim regime itself.

When Thae was “milkshaked,” his guards quickly subdued the attacker, and the man was soon arrested. Online, his comrades celebrated him. One of them said, “He got arrested for ruining a rich defector’s coat and deserves a lot of support and love right now.”

It was just a milkshake, true — nothing serious. But Thae didn’t know that at first. He thought of Kim Jong-nam, the dictator’s half-brother, who was killed when two women smeared him with a foreign substance in the Kuala Lumpur airport.

• Back, now, to our conversation, and another question: How do South Koreans, his brother Koreans, treat Thae? It depends, he says. South Korea is polarized on the issue of North Korea. People on the left treat him with scorn. I remark that they might try living in North Korea, if they think it’s so great — which makes Thae smile.

Around the world, people view the Korean War (1950–53) as a war between the North and the South. In South Korea, says Thae, many people view it, instead, as a war between Left and Right. And there is deep sympathy for the Left.

Think of it: Left and Right did not fight merely theoretically. They did not fight merely with words. They fought with arms. East Germany and West Germany never fought a war against each other. The Koreas did. And this war reverberates, says Thae, even now.

In South Korea, he meets people on the left who struggled for democracy and human rights in their country, when it was under dictatorship. Yet many of these same people are reluctant to talk about democracy and human rights for North Koreans. They want to change the subject.

I remark to Thae that it must be bewildering to him to meet apologists for dictatorships — especially North Korea’s, the worst — in free countries. Yes.

• What does he think about the unusual relationship between the American president, Trump, and the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un? Thae says that he understands the need to discuss nuclear issues — but does not understand why Trump depicts Kim as a “nice guy” or even a “normal person.” “Kim Jong-un is a tyrant, a dictator, and a criminal.”

• Jeane Kirkpatrick used to describe North Korea as “a psychotic state,” something of which the world had very little experience. Thae Yong-ho often describes life inside North Korea as “unimaginable.” He is trying to get people to imagine it. He wrote a memoir, Cryptography from the Third-Floor Secretariat. He started a blog.

• His goal, or dream, is nothing less than the end of the regime. He would like to see the Korean Peninsula reunited on democratic terms. Does he have a strategy? Yes. First and foremost, he wants to encourage North Korean elites to recognize what they surely know or suspect already, in their doublethinking: The Kim regime is corrupt, nasty, and lying.

He knows what it’s like to be a North Korean elite. He was one. Eventually, this doublethinking will tip over into a more resolute thinking: Yes, the North Korean regime is wrong. It smashes everything that a human being has a right to have.

Thae does not think that this regime will fall tomorrow, oh no. But he thinks it will fall, as the people of North Korea learn more about themselves and others, and, in disgust at having been misled and oppressed, rise up.

• Before he and I part, I ask Thae, “Do your former colleagues and other North Korean elites admire you, secretly?” “Yes,” he says. “Do you know this for sure?” I ask. “Of course,” he answers. They know, better than anyone else, the sheer guts of what Thae Yong-ho has done.

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