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 in the Norwegian 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.
He went to 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, to whom he sang the praises of North Korea, knowing, already, it was a false song. These British leftists were true believers, as he had once been. He felt sorry for them.
Then there was the matter of his boys: his two sons. In an atmosphere of freedom — namely, Britain’s — they too were experiencing doublethink. They had some hard questions for their father at the dinner table: “Why is there no Internet in North Korea? YouTube helps you do your homework. Isn’t our government supposed to care about education?” What was their father supposed to say?
Periodically, the family would go home to North Korea. Naturally, the boys’ friends there were curious about life in Britain. What was it like? It was not really safe for the boys to say, “Great!” They asked their father how they should respond. He suggested that they reread Oliver Twist, and give them some stories out of that book.
You can read Dickens in North Korea, for his depiction of urchins and such. In April, 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.
Incidentally, 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.
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.
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.
I further ask him what he thinks of the unusual relationship between President Trump and Kim Jong-un. He 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.”
Thae’s goal, or dream, is nothing less than the end of the regime. He would like to see the Korean Peninsula reunited on democratic terms. He opens his mouth, whatever the risks, every chance he gets. He wants to tell the outside world about the realities of North Korea. And he wants to encourage North Korean elites, first and foremost, to recognize what they surely know or suspect already, in their doublethinking: The Kim regime is corrupt, nasty, and lying. He does not think this regime will fall tomorrow. But he thinks it will fall, as North Koreans learn more about themselves and others, and, in disgust at having been misled and oppressed, rise up.
Before Thae and I part, I ask, “Do your former colleagues and other North Korean elites admire you, secretly?” “Yes,” Thae 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.