by Tim Shorrock
The celebration of defectors from communist countries is an old tradition in Washington. Over the years, dozens of diplomats and spies from the Soviet Union—along with numerous world-famous athletes and dancers—have stepped across the US national security stage and done their part for freedom and democracy, America-style.
One of the most spectacular was Svetlana Alliluyeva, the daughter of Joseph Stalin, who defected while visiting India in 1966. A decade later, Victor Belenko flew his MIG fighter jet to Japan, turned himself over to US authorities, and spent years working as a consultant to US defense contractors. The biggest coup may have been Arkady Shevchenko, who in 1978 became the highest-ranking Soviet official to ever defect, taking refuge with the CIA after spying for the US for 3 years from his perch at the United Nations.
This week, Washington gave a warm welcome to Thae Yong-ho, the highest-level diplomat to defect from North Korea since 1979. A year ago, Thae, an erudite man in his 50s, fled London, where he was serving as North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the UK. Thae and his family were eventually granted asylum in South Korea, where he is now working for the country’s National Intelligence Service, the successor to the once-dreaded Korean CIA.
Thae spent much of his time in Washington preaching about the ills of his country and its 33-year-old hereditary dictator, Kim Jong Un. He denounced the country’s network of prison camps, where he said even former ambassadors to Cuba and Malaysia have been sent for political crimes. At one point, he declared that North Korea’s dismal record on human rights “was tantamount to the crimes committed by the Nazis.” In contrast to many North Korean defectors, however, Thae had no direct experience with that system.
In an opening statement to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which invited him to testify on his second day in the city, Thae explained that, as a member of North Korea’s diplomatic elite, he had always enjoyed “economic privileges,” and received much of his higher education abroad, specifically in China. Since 2001, he spent most of his time in Europe, also representing North Korea in Sweden and before the UN. “We were dedicated, true communists,” he said, but now “my family and I have abandoned that.”
His rejection of the ruling Workers Party appeared to be far more practical than ideological, however. In a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Thae explained that his primary motivation for defecting was his family’s experience with the incredible array of information from the Internet they viewed during their life in London. His sons, he said, loved the Internet, “which is so great, even for study, for fun, for everything. But why does the North Korean regime not allow it?”
Questions like that, he said, placed him in a “very difficult situation,” while discussions with his British friends “left me flat-footed.” He finally decided that “the biggest legacy I can leave for my sons is the freedom” provided to ordinary people by on-line information, chats, and searches. His boys “saw a different world,” he said. “I could not let them life a life like me as a modern-day slave.”
Pressure, Engagement: Not War
On the raging conflict between Kim Jong Un and President Trump over the North’s fast-advancing nuclear and missile programs, Thae took the view adopted by many US analysts of North Korea’s intentions. Kim, he said, is trying to “blackmail” the United States, with the ultimate goal of forcing it to withdraw its 28,000 soldiers from South Korea.
At the same time, he warned against a pre-emptive strike—such as those contemplated by the Trump administration—because of the “human sacrifice” that North Korea could inflict on South Korea with its massive array of artillery and rockets just north of the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ). “I support maximum pressure policy” of the Trump administration, he said, “but I strongly believe that maximum pressure should go together with maximum engagement.”
That engagement, he suggested, should be begin with direct contacts with the Kim government. “Before any military action is taken, I think it is necessary to meet Kim Jong Un, at least once, to understand his thinking and try to convince him that he would be destroyed” if the North attacks the U.S. or its allies, he told Congress. The end goal, he added, is to persuade the North to give up its weapons and then “help Kim Jong Un build its economy and make North Korea a prosperous country.”
As for future policies, Thae emphasized the importance of penetrating North Korea’s information blockade. The use of “soft power,” he said, would be key to ending what he called Kim’s “reign of terror” over the North Korean population. “We can’t change” the regime’s policy, he said, “but we can do the dissemination of outside information inside North Korea.”
He suggested a campaign of “tailor-made content”—smuggled in electronic memory devices that can be easily hidden from authorities—to educate the North Korean people and their ruling elite about the realities of the Kim regime and “basic concepts of human rights, freedom and democracy.”
Thae’s stress on information operations dovetailed with the policies of the organization that sponsored his first trip to the United States: the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a US government agency that Congress created in the 1980s to supplant the CIA in supporting pro-US democratic forces around the world. In recent years, NED has taken a major interest in North Korea.
In 2006, according to NED’s webpage on North Korea, the organization spent over $2 million on more than dozen organizations focused on bringing international attention to the human rights situation in North Korea and supporting the “free flow” of information into the country. Major recipients included NK News ($200,000), which is frequently quoted on US social media, and Unification Media Group, which received $440,00 to beam radio broadcasts in North Korea (in 2014, Pyongyang slammed it as an “anti-Republic clown show of provocation,” according to NK News).
Thae’s talk at CSIS was co-sponsored by NED and the Committee for Human Rights in Korea, which last week released a report based on newly available imagery that claims that Kim has greatly expanded his “brutal and inhumane” prison system over the past four years.
His visit came as President Trump was preparing to visit South Korea to focus global attention on his campaign to end North Korea’s nuclear and ICBM programs. With Trump likely to face opposition and demonstrations against his militaristic policies in Seoul, Thae’s appearances in Washington appeared to be designed to convince Americans that tough measures such as sanctions are necessary to deal with Pyongyang and that North Korean defectors might be around who could run a successor government if the Kim regime ever collapsed.
“Thae Yong-ho can help us answer the question of how to understand North Korea, which is a precondition for the development of an effective policy to deal with the security threat,” Carl Gershman, the longtime director of NED and a prominent anti-communist activist from the days of the Cold War, said in introducing the former diplomat at CSIS.
Tim Shorrock is a Washington-based journalist who writes about US national security and foreign policy for many publications at home and abroad. He is the author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing. Photo: Thae Yong-ho (CNN)