Thae Yong Ho, one of the highest-ranking officials ever to defect from North Korea, doesn’t agree with those who argue that Donald Trump is recklessly tempting war by threatening and taunting Kim Jong Un.
North Korean leaders perceived past American presidents such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as “very gentle,” Thae told me this week during his first visit to the United States since seeking asylum in South Korea in 2016, and just ahead of Trump’s trip to South Korea. Now they don’t seem to know what to make of the man at the helm of the United States: “When Trump came up with ‘fire and fury,’ that kind of [phrase] was never used by any American.” Such unprecedented rhetoric, he argued, is probably one reason why Kim Jong Un has not gone ahead with his plans to test-fire a missile toward the U.S. territory of Guam. Thae noted that North Korea hadn’t conducted a nuclear or missile test since Trump declared that the United States would, if necessary to protect itself or its allies, “totally destroy North Korea” and the “Rocket Man” who runs it.
The aggressive language has its limits, Thae observed; North Korean officials are unlikely to believe the Trump administration is serious about taking military action against North Korea until, for example, it starts evacuating or issuing advisories to Americans—especially the families of U.S. troops—in South Korea. Nevertheless, he thinks that so far, “the unpredictability of Mr. Trump [has] worked, to some extent, to prevent a further escalation of the crisis.”
Thae once passionately defended the Kim dynasty as deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom and now fervently denounces it as an émigré-dissident with bodyguards in tow, but has yet to shed the role of the dapper, suit-and-tie-clad diplomat. Speaking to me in between a speech to a think tank and testimony to Congress in Washington, D.C., he acknowledged that the Trump administration’s approach to North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program is “very controversial.” But he said that he saw “a lot of positive aspects” to it.
Thae applauded the administration for imposing severe economic sanctions on North Korea and advocated for targeted sanctions to be expanded. Yet he counseled patience with a country like North Korea, which is already relatively isolated from the global economy and has built up “war reserves” of food and oil for these very moments. Sanctions could take months or years to prove effective, he predicted, just as North Korea didn’t immediately descend into crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. In the meantime, he argued, the United States shouldn’t only rely on sanctions and military hardware and help from traditional North Korean allies such as China and Russia. It should also wield “soft power” to undermine the Kim government from within, by funneling outside information—movies, TV shows, literature—into North Korea so that its people learn more about freedom, democracy, and human rights.
The current war of words between the United States and North Korea isn’t all that surprising given Trump’s style and the North Korean government’s longstanding practice of linguistic escalation, Thae said.“What happens is that if an American president attacks the North Korean leader, the North Korean Foreign Ministry or the other ministries [are expected to] find even more aggressive words to deliver their anger. It’s a competition of loyalty” to Kim Jong Un.
Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho has recently warned that North Korea might shoot down U.S. bombers, fire missiles at the U.S. mainland, and conduct an atmospheric nuclear test over the Pacific Ocean. But Thae, who worked closely with Ri at the North Korean embassy in London and admires him as a “very knowledgeable” and “very gentle diplomat,” described these threats as “just rhetoric.” While such official statements are carefully reviewed and approved by Pyongyang, Thae explained, they are primarily intended to reflect the North Korean leader’s emotional state at any given moment—not necessarily to indicate what actions the North Korean government will take next. “If Kim Jong Un is angry then Ri Yong Ho should be angry!” Thae said. If Ri Yong Ho isn’t angry, or doesn’t sound angry, Ri Yong Ho might be purged.
Thae said he stood by one of the arguments he often made as a diplomat: that North Korean leaders think of nuclear weapons in defensive terms—as a means of deterring foreign, and particularly American, military intervention. If an Arab Spring-style uprising were to occur in North Korea and the government brutally suppressed it, Thae explained, Kim Jong Un doesn’t want to end up dead like Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, who prior to NATO’s bombing campaign had bowed to international pressure and abandoned his nuclear-weapons program. North Korea is not inclined to use the nuclear weapons that it’s amassing, Thae stressed: “Kim Jong Un knows well that once he uses his nuclear weapons against America or South Korea, then that could end up with the total destruction of the North Korean [political] system.”
But that’s not the full story, he added, echoing a point that Trump administration officials like National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster have made as well. Even if the Kim government doesn’t launch its nuclear weapons, it could leverage the existence of them to go on the offensive militarily and pursue its dream of reunifying the Korean peninsula under the North’s control. As North Korean leaders see it, a nuclear weapon “of course is powerful if you use it, but the psychological effect of having nuclear weapons is greater than the actual use of nuclear weapons,” freeing up Kim Jong Un to engage in non-nuclear provocations that “destabilize South Korea’s society and economy,” Thae said.
Kim Jong Un is “hot-tempered,” but he is “not a madman. He wants to depict himself as a madman toward the American population. He wants to create an image that Kim Jong Un is unpredictable,” Thae told me. (Sound familiar?) Once he has a long-range nuclear weapon that can threaten the United States, and thus “blackmail, then America has to choose whether they should continue the current policy of protecting South Korea or leave South Korea. … One day the strategists in Washington may decide to withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea.”
And even if the United States eventually strikes a deal with North Korea to restrict its nuclear program, American negotiators might have to offer steep concessions for rolling back the North’s advanced nuclear arsenal, including a peace treaty to finally end the Korean War and perhaps even the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea.
“North Korea will not attack South Korea as long as there are American troops [in South Korea] and as long as they are not attacked by the Americans,” Thae said. But if American troops flow out of South Korea, North Korean leaders believe “foreign investment will follow … and then, when the foreign investment starts to leave, South Korean companies may follow, they may move their headquarters to other countries. And if that is the case, then maybe the elite of South Korea may transfer their money to other countries, send their children to America, whatever. The whole system would be destabilized.”
North Korea’s leaders look to America’s 1973 withdrawal from Vietnam and the 1975 reunification of the country as precedent, Thae noted. “When North Vietnamese forces attack … [South Vietnam] collapses very easily,” he said. “That is the same [result] North Korea wants to achieve by nuclear blackmail.”