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High-profile defector: Discontent with North Korean government is growing

In his first news conference with foreign media since defecting in August, former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong Ho described the country as being 'on a slippery slope.'

Former North Korean deputy ambassador to the UK Thae Yong-Ho talks to the media at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club in Seoul, South Korea on January 25, 2017.
Ed Jones/ Reuters | Caption

After decades of authoritarian rule, change may be coming in North Korea, a prominent defector to South Korea indicated on Wednesday.

In his first news conference for foreign media since defecting in August, Thae Yong Ho shared his views on the state of the regime, saying that support for the North Korean government is crumbling. The longtime diplomat also discussed his reasons for defecting, chief among them the pursuit of a better life for his two sons.

Citizens who gain more information about North Korea are becoming dissatisfied, Mr. Thae said. At the same time, economic realities in the country are weakening the government’s legitimacy. The combination of these factors empowers ordinary citizens while weakening the government, perhaps irreversibly, he said.

"Low-level dissent or criticism of the regime, until recently unthinkable, is becoming more frequent," he said, saying that North Korea "is already on a slippery slope."

At the time of his defection, Thae was the number-two North Korean diplomat in London, where he had served two stints, the first beginning in 2004. There, he spoke regularly in defense of the government’s policies. But he had hoped for a brighter future for his country under Kim Jong Un – and that hope soon turned to despair.

"When Kim Jong Un first came to power, I was hopeful that he would make reasonable and rational decisions to save North Korea from poverty, but I soon fell into despair watching him purging officials for no proper reasons," Thae explained at the news conference, according to Reuters.

His decision to defect was also spurred by his children. Having spent time with him in Britain over the years, Thae’s sons began to question him about North Korean policies such as barring use of the internet and executing people without due legal process. Thae decided to be honest with them, as he told foreign media on Wednesday. Knowing everything they now did about the outside world and the North Korean government, his sons would be "miserable" in North Korea, Thae determined – and so he decided to defect.

In order to prevent diplomats from being tempted to defect, the North Korean government typically requires them to leave a child at home. Thae, however, was able to arrange for both his wife and his sons to join him before he defected to South Korea in August. Though the government has accused him of embezzlement and other crimes, he doesn’t worry about the possibility of North Korean agents pursuing him, he said during the conference.

"I am quite confident that without sacrifice by any individual or any group ... reunification or the elimination of the Kim Jong Un regime cannot be achieved," he said.

Defections by ordinary people have been down since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011, as The Christian Science Monitor previously reported. At the same time, defections by officials are up – and according to Thae, more officials are waiting in Europe to defect.

There’s a widespread sense of discontentment with the government, he said. Western influences have been catching on: Many ordinary citizens enjoy watching South Korean dramas and TV programs secretly at home. If North Koreans have more information about their country and the world, they may rise up against their government, Thae suggested.

Economic realities have already made people more outspoken against the government. Though officially the country has a Soviet-style command economy, informal markets provide most people with food and goods. And women in those markets are increasingly standing up for their right to make a living, as The New York Times reported.

That’s a threat to the government, Thae noted.

"If he tries to introduce a market-oriented economy to North Korean society, then there will be no place for Kim Jong-un in North Korea, and he knows that," he said, according to The New York Times.

China, which has long repatriated defectors to an almost certain death in North Korea, may also be considering a change in policy, according to defector Hyeonseo Lee, who spent 11 years in China.

"Chinese people are starting to realize that so many defectors have been suffering in China, and it doesn't have to be this way," she previously told the Monitor.

Changes like this may suggest the value of patience in negotiating with North Korea on the part of the US, the Monitor’s Editorial Board suggested on Wednesday.

For his part, Thae has pledged to help bring an end to the North Korean government.

"I would like to make it possible for people to rise up," he told The Washington Post. "We should educate the North Korean people so that they can have their own 'Korean Spring.' "

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.