Thae Yong-Ho (태영호) has now joined South Korea’s civilian society. Thae was interrogated by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service for three months, a customary procedure for anyone that defects from North Korea. Thae defected in August 2016 with his wife and two sons (as well as his brother) while serving as North Korea’s deputy envoy in London. He is the highest ranking North Korean diplomat to defect directly to South Korea. Immediately, North Korea labeled him “human scum” and accused him of stealing government funds.
Thae vehemently denies embezzling North Korean funds, saying he took pictures of necessary documents before defecting to prove his innocence. His reason for defection, Thae explained, was Kim Jong-Un’s “tyrannical reign of terror.” He did not want his two sons to lead a life of slavery when they return to North Korea, as they were ordered to in August.
While stationed in London, Thae was an avid fan of Korean dramas. Watching Korean dramas helped him learn about Western values and yearn for democratic ways of life. Thae also accompanied Kim Jong-Un’s older brother, Kim Jong-Chul, to an Eric Clapton concert in London in 2015. So this man knows a thing or two about pop culture. In fact, if you watch some of the speeches Thae gave to the followers of London’s leftist and communist ideologies, you can see that he is very well spoken and is versed in the art of persuasion. His English is impeccable and he has clearly been trained in oratory and debating tactics to win over English-speaking converts. We can think of no other defector who is as accomplished when it comes to English mastery; this skill set surely sets him apart and he will be prized by South Korea’s intelligence community.
Thae cautions that there has been increased surveillance of high-ranking officials in North Korea. Most residences of senior officials are extensively bugged and you have to be very careful about speaking your mind anywhere, even in your own home. Hyon Young-Cheol (현영철), the former North Korean defense minister executed by Kim Jong-Un in April 2015, was “not being careful at home,” according to Thae. It was rumored in South Korea that Hyon was executed because he had fallen asleep during official sessions of the North Korean Workers Party. Perhaps it was not dozing off in front of Kim Jong-Un but mouthing off when the Marshall was not around, that did him in.
In North Korea, capitalism is being embraced at the very basic level in order for people to survive, according to Thae. North Koreans are engaged in bartering and taking part in small-scale markets called Jang Ma-Dang(장마당), where they sell goods and services to each other. “Capitalism is taking hold purely for people to survive.” Sort of like Bartertown, if you ever watched Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
What’s interesting here is Thae’s take on the North Korean regime. He believes that “if anything happens to Kim Jong-Un, North Korea will collapse.” Thae believes that the entire power structure is built around Kim so that if he is eliminated, there is no way for the regime to continue — “since there is no clear number 2, the regime will collapse.” [This is debatable and collapsism is an enticing thought; however, this is not the time to take issue with Mr. Thae.]
Thae believes NK will collapse if Kim Jong-Un is rubbed out. Youtube Screen Capture
Thae is officially being released into civilian society on December 23. He plans on taking part in various events designed to facilitate unification on the Korean peninsula. “Even though my personal safety will be threatened, I will be actively working on behalf of those who are working towards Korean unification.” It is expected that he will join the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS), where fellow defectors with similar backgrounds, such as Ko Young-Hwan, work.
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So South Korea’s “soft power” goes a long way in luring another North Korean heavyweight to its fold. Despite being criticized as “shallow,” South Korea’s music, film and drama industries can flex some muscle, as we can see. Now, Mr. Thae and his family will never miss a single episode of their favorite Korean dramas.