North Korean Defector Warns: Regime’s Goal Is Becoming a Nuclear Power

Deputy ambassador Thae Yong-Ho at a 2014 art exhibition at the North Korean embassy in London
AFP Katie Schubauer

Former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho, who defected and now operates out of South Korea, warned in a press conference Monday that the “final destination” of the Kim regime is to possess nuclear weapons and that, in his estimation, Kim Jong-un “will never give them up.”

Thae held a press conference to answer questions regarding his experience with the communist Kim regime in light of the upcoming publication of his autobiography, detailing his work as a diplomat for the regime in London and his harrowing escape.

The defector said he believed that Pyongyang would take steps towards “sufficient” dismantling of its nuclear weapons development, but not “complete” dismantlement of the nuclear program, according to the South Korean news service Yonhap.

“The final destination that the North is headed for is not to completely dismantle its nuclear weapons program but become a nuclear weapons state covered by the paper called denuclearization,” he suggested.

On economic issues, Thae suggested that North Korea is seeking a way to open its market up only as much as it needs for the Kim dynasty to survive, planning the creation of 14 “special” economic zones where international business can occur. North Korea is organized under a strict caste system known as songbun, which prevents individuals accused of being against the regime or related to those accused of such thought crimes from accessing the wealthiest parts of the country. Generations of families have been banned from Pyongyang for having bad songbun as a product of a grandparent’s perceived transgression. North Korean government officials can easily ban anyone with bad songbun from accessing these designated special economic areas.

Thae noted that, according to Kim Jong-un himself, nuclear weapons are “a sword and a shield for eternal prosperity, prosperity and happiness for generations to come. … He will never give them up.” He added that when North Korea demands that the United States and other nations involved in diplomatic discussions give the country “security guarantees,” they are seeking “to make it possible for the Kim Il-sung family to perpetuate its rule through succession.” Any moves towards a free and democratic North Korea would immediately end talks with the regime, who deem the rule of North Korea under anyone not in the Kim family “unacceptable,” in Thae’s estimation.

The former diplomat highlighted that Kim presents himself to the North Korean people not only as a head of state, but as an “omnipotent” and “godlike” figure. Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea, “set himself up as God,” Suzanne Scholte of the Defense Forum Foundation explained at a recent talk. “His son, Kim Jong-il, is the Jesus figure.  And Juche, their philosophy, as the Holy Spirit.”

“They are brainwashed to idolize him through their entire lives.  And they, in fact, have a prayer they say: ‘Thank you, Father Kim il-Sung’ after a meal,” Scholte explained. “They have what we would know as the Apostles’ Creed that’s changed to worship the Kim dictatorship.”

Park Yeonmi, a North Korean defector who has used her freedom to travel the world sharing her experience in the country, said in a 2014 interview that she was brainwashed to believe Kim Jong-il could read her mind.

Kim Il-sung’s family was Christian before he assumed the leadership of the communist regime, and many of the tenets and practices of Kim worship possess similar qualities to Christian worship. Christianity itself, however, is banned and severely punished in North Korea. Bibles are displayed in war museums as weapons used by Americans against the “juche” (“self-reliance”) Kim philosophy. Those accused of being Christians are beaten, raped, tortured, and sometimes bulldozed to death.

The North Korean regime appears to be taking measures to impress upon the international community that they no longer regard nuclear weapons as necessary to the preservation of the Kim regime. On Saturday, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announced that the Foreign Ministry would allow international journalists—including Americans, Chinese, and Russians—to attend a ceremony for the permanent shutdown of the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site at Mount Mantap. While many cheered the official disarming of the site, others noted that at least three studies conducted in the past month found that the site has been unusable since September, when the last nuclear weapon test occurred in the country. If so, disabling the site through an official ceremony is no real sacrifice to Pyongyang.

Thae’s concerns appear to echo those of North Korean defectors who did not have as much access to the inner workings of the Kim regime. Many who defected to North Korea fear that, should South Korean President Moon Jae-in reach a peace agreement with the Kim regime, they will no longer be considered political prisoners and be forced to return home, despite Kim Jong-un making no changes to his atrocious human rights record.

“I haven’t slept more than an hour a night since the inter-Korean summit. People like me who have been living quietly could be dragged off to North Korea any moment,” an unidentified woman who defected to South Korea told the newspaper Chosun Ilbo.

Chosun reported that defectors fear the South Korean government attempting to placate Pyongyang by claiming that the defectors were “abducted” and returning them as trophies. Others expressed concern to Chosun that their main source of income, giving lectures at universities and events about their time in the North, will soon no longer be available because Seoul wants to limit the amount of negative information about North Korea readily available. Multiple defectors said they went from giving lectures to waiting tables almost immediately after President Moon Jae-in announced he would meet Kim Jong-un in person.

One woman said she was booked to speak about her life in North Korea and was “chided” for being too “negative.”

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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