Expert on North Korea (NK Expert): Trump is an unpredictable person. After seeing the attack in Syria this month, it is clear that if Trump says something, he will do it. I don’t think we can take his threats to North Korea to simply be rhetorical. It appears that the US has now decided that it will no longer neglect the North Korean nuclear issue.
Until now, as much as South Korea has tried to solve the North Korean nuclear issue, the US did not act according to our wishes. However, now that we have a tough individual like Trump in power, it would seem like South Korea’s time has come but instead it appears that South Korea will no longer simply act according to the US’ wishes. If Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party becomes president, he is bound to oppose US’ hardline policy towards North Korea. Mr. Thae, what are your thoughts?
Thae Yong-ho (Thae): At this moment in time, I don’t think the US will launch a preemptive strike on North Korea. This is even if North Korea conducts its 6th nuclear weapon test or ICBM tests.
I say this because,
Firstly, the South Korean government will obviously oppose any preemptive strikes made by the US and the US cannot make any military actions without the South Korean government’s permission. It has been reported that there are about 200,000 Americans living in South Korea. Among them, 25,000 are US soldiers and their families- and Trump would never be able to put their safety and lives at risk. In the case that Trump was to exercise his authority as the Commander-in-Chief and order a preemptive strike, the generals enforcing the attack would first instruct the United States Forces Korea (USFK) to prepare for any possible situations and there would be a significant change in the lives of the families of the USFK. Right now, there are North Korean spies who are watching the US bases closely every day to see if there is any movement amongst the US soldiers. If there are no changes to the lives of the US soldiers and their families, North Korea will not believe that the US will launch a preemptive strike.
Secondly, North Korea will look at the trends in China, Russia and Japan and not believe that the US will launch a preemptive strike.
When I look back at the time I lived in North Korea, there were two incidents in which I thought that the US was actually going to attack North Korea.
The first was the USS Pueblo incident of January 1968. I was 6 years old and living in Pyongyang, and my mother started putting my clothes and snacks in my backpack. I remember her hiding her tears as she said that she had received orders to send the children to the rural areas and she was sending me to my grandmother’s house.
The second time was the ‘Panmunjom Axe Murder Incident’ in August 1976. North Korea said it was protecting Pyongyang from the US’ attacks and sent tens of thousands of Pyongyang families from the ‘Hostile and Wavering Class’ to the countryside. At the time, Kim Il-sung’s second son Kim Pyong-il was attending Kim Il-sung University and he appealed to enter the Korean People’s Army, which meant that the majority of university students had to enlist in the military. With Kim Il-sung’s son is going to the army, all state officials also had no choice but to send their children to the army. There would be air-raid sirens ringing every day and citizens would have to take part in evacuation drills. I guess you could ask, what was it that made North Korea think that the US would launch a preemptive attack?
For starters, North Korea received information from spies in South Korea who said that the US was preparing for military action. On top of this, China and the Soviet Union officially told North Korea that it should prepare as the US was preparing to attack.
The situation now is similar to how it was then. China and Russia are probably mobilizing all their sources of information. However, if you look at the domestic situation in North Korea right now things are very calm. On the 11th North Korea held its Supreme People’s Assembly as planned and right now they are celebrating Kim Il-sung’s birthday. At the same time, I can imagine that Kim Jong-un is pressuring the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the General Staff Department, the Ministry of State Security and the United Front Department every day to report on whether the US is going to actually launch an attack. North Korea is so calm right now because it thinks that the US will never launch a preemptive attack, and that it still has the liberty to push its weight around.
NK Expert: The fact that Trump is such an unpredictable person and that he launched an attack on Syria must have really shocked Kim Jong-un. And with North Korea hoping that the Democratic Party will win the upcoming elections, do you think that North Korea would dare to conduct any nuclear or missile tests in April ahead of the elections?
Thae: I feel like it is in times like these we need to recognize North Korea’s agency in situations. North Korea doesn’t see the future of the Korean peninsula dependent on who the president of South Korea is, but rather it is dependent on whether North Korea completes its nuclear or ICBM development. As a result even in 2017, regardless of the person that is the president of the US or South Korea, North Korea will not change its strategy of completing its nuclear and ICBM development but will continue with its ‘Freeze-for-Freeze’ initiative until it achieves its status as a nuclear power. If North Korea is able to show the US and South Korea its nuclear and ICBM capabilities regardless of whether they have succeeded in developing them or not, North Korea will be able to shape US and South Korea’s North Korean policy to how it wishes.
The question of whether North Korea will conduct any nuclear or missile tests in April is not dependent on the US’ current affairs or the South Korean elections but rather on North Korean internal affairs. If the WPK Munitions Industry Department submits a report saying that it had finished its preparations for nuclear and missile tests, then Kim Jong-un will order a test to take place. Kim Jong-un is determined to reach the goal of nuclear and missile complement as soon as possible.
Firstly, if North Korea’s nuclear and missile goals are achieved, the Six-party talks that were previously centred on the denuclearization of North Korea will become a nuclear disarmament talk. In the instance that the Six-Party talks were based on ‘ Freeze-for-Freeze’ as advocated by North Korea and Chinese Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang Geng, then this really means that the purpose of these talks would have changed to be ‘nuclear disarmament.’ This means that the US and South Korea’s North Korea policy based on ‘denuclearization first, then talks’ will be shattered, and disarmament talks in the form of give-and-take will begin. If the Six-party talks change into disarmament talks then in exchange for the freezing of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, then the US and South Korea will have to offer acts that are seen to be equivalent of the alleviation of sanctions such as the suspension of US-ROK joint military drills, redeployment of American tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula and 5.24 Measures.
Right now, China is leaning to North Korea’s side.
After North Korea broke the Joint Statement of 19 September 2005 and carried out nuclear tests in 2006 Wu Dawei, the Chinese representative of the Six-party talks condemned North Korea stating that North Korea had agreed to denuclearization and subsequently broken the agreement. Do you think that North Korea or China as the host of the Six-party talks weren’t aware of the 19 September Joint Statement? Where does it say the denuclearization of North Korea in the statement? It says denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea argued that the essence of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula relies on the US’ deployment of nuclear weapons and the military drills that verged on nuclear war. North Korea said it was actually the US and South Korea that had broken the 19 September Joint Statement, and if the Chinese comrades wanted to continue to lead the Six-party talks then they should study the joint statement in a bit more detail. North Korea asserted that if China wanted to implement the 19 September Joint Statement then they should begin with suspending the US-ROK joint military drills. In the end Wu Dawei saw the insincere nature of the 19 September statement and there was nothing else for North Korea to say.
NK Expert: To be honest, I support a ‘phased nuclear negotiation strategy.’ Quite frankl6 shouldn’t we be stopping Kim Jong-un’s speedy nuclear development? Then I believe at this point- from the perspective of managing the crisis- we should listen to Kim Jong-un’s demands if that means we can stop the nuclear and missile tests.
Thae: Lots of people support the ‘phased nuclear negotiation strategy.’ However, this stance is dependent on Kim Jong-un’s willingness to give up his nuclear weapons. But Kim Jong-un will never give up nuclear weapons.
NK Expert: I am also well aware that Kim Jong-un will never give up his nuclear weapons. However, I also think that we should start by preventing any additional nuclear tests.
Thae: If we are to have talks with North Korea in the future, we need to go back to the joint statement that was made by North Korea and the other five nations on September 19, 2005. If we don’t and just continue from the point we are now, it is as if we are just letting North Korea get away with all their nuclear developments they have done over the past ten years since 2006 and North Korea will become a Nuclear Power. Then Kim Jong-un will make the US and South Korea surrender to him and will use his image as ‘the leader of the people who gained status as a nuclear power’ for propaganda and the once-agitated elite will say that Kim Jong-un’s ‘mad-man strategy’ has been successful and start looking up to him.
The issue at hand is the reaction from the international community.
Since 2006, the world has continued to implement sanctions on North Korea under the premise that North Korea cannot be a nuclear power. However, if we were to turn a blind eye to all of this and allow North Korea to continue in its present situation with nuclear weapons, then that essentially invalidates all the sanctions and international legal works that have been put in place against North Korea for the past 10 years. If North Korea then conducts its 6th nuclear test, nobody will listen to the US or South Korea anymore.
NK Expert: Are you saying that there is no solution?
Thae: For a while, we have no choice but to survive with a nuclear North Korea. If we start panicking about whether Kim Jong-un will use his nuclear card, that means Kim Jong-un’s strategy has been successful. No matter what Kim Jong-un says we should just ignore him but concentrate on collapsing the regime from within.
NK Expert: Wherever you go, you talk about an uprising in North Korea- do you really think it’s possible? In my opinion, it doesn’t seem that way.
Thae: In order to understand the possibility of an uprising in North Korea, first you have to understand the differences between the systems in North Korea and South Korea.
In a free democratized society, everybody has the freedom of expression, so it’s possible to read the general sentiment of citizens. And with elections every 4 to 5 years, they are able deal with any dissatisfaction that may have built up by electing a new party or person in which they can put their hope and expectations.
However, this is not the case in a communist society.
In a one-party and dictatorship system all decisions are made top-down. As people are generally oppressed with fear and unable to open up their hearts, outsiders and in fact even the leaders of communist states are unable to detect any change in the heart of the people. In other words, when a system reaches its critical point of collapse, communist leaders are unable to foresee or act to prevent it from happening.
This is what happened in August 1991, when the Soviet military attempted to block the collapse of the Soviet Union through a coup d’état attempt by driving tanks into the centre of Moscow. Many thought the crowd would flee in fear but instead the crowds captured the tanks in anger. Nobody at that time who thought that the Soviet Union would fall so easily.
The same can be said for the reunification of Germany.
In Romania, one day Ceaușescu was making a speech in front of a crowd who supported his policies and then was suddenly overthrown and executed within a matter of days. Even after decades of ruling the country, Ceaușescu was not able to predict that the people had reached a critical point and did not realise that once a critical point is reached there is nothing that the military, secret police or even communist party can do.
There was a time when Kim Jong-il also wasn’t able to decipher the psychological change in the North Korean people and made a huge policy error. In November 2009, Kim Jong-il implemented a currency reform. At the time, Kim Jong-il blamed the failing North Korean economy on the hoarding of cash by individuals and the expansion of capitalist economy through the infiltration of the market. Kim Jong-il had tried to solve the issue of the money that wasn’t entering the banks needed for the salaries of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, state officials and state laborers. But this completely failed within a few days. He then put the blame on Pak Nam-gi the director of the Planning and Finance Department of the ruling party of North Korea and his execution put the people’s anger to rest. For a totally controlled society such as North Korea, it was an unparalleled failure.
On the day that the currency reform was implemented, it was announced that each person would only be allowed to exchange five thousand won for the new currency which was met with so much resistance that within a few days they adjusted it to 100,000 per family. With shops closing and no products on the market, Kim Man-gil, the chief secretary of the Pyongyang Party apologized in front of the North Korean people and appealed for all business activities to return to normal.
The failure of the currency reform was a huge shock for Kim Jong-il. Until then, he had only been met with the blind obedience of the North Koreans who shook with every utterance of the North Korean leader, so naturally the large-scale appeals came as a shock.
He didn’t realise that while people would somewhat accept political controls, once people were given a taste of money they would fight with their lives in the face of having their right to survival or money taken away from them. This is the reason that the markets are a threat to Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. That is why to this day Kim Jong-un cannot publicly accept the existence of markets, but at the same time he is not able to completely obstruct them. .
Right now, changes are happening in North Korea However, the important question is how and in what speed this change will occur.
That does not mean we should just sit back and do nothing. We must take charge and bring about this change through the dissemination of external information to awaken the North Korean people and initiate an uprising.
NK Expert: Then how many years do you predict it will take?
Thae: If we really want, we could make it happen much faster.
First we need to develop contents customized to change the thoughts of the North Korean people and disseminate it but also ensure that there is some kind of economic incentive. That means we need to attach money to the leaflets before they are distributed. They need to be distributed to Pyongyang and the soldiers along the DMZ. If we distribute 1 million dollars every day for 100 days, those one hundred million dollars will change everything.
First, the North Korean regime will do all they can to collect all the leaflets and money while the people will at the same time hide it. Upon calculating all the leaflets and money that is going into the hands of the North Korean people, Kim Jong-un will start to get extremely anxious about his fate.
Next, the North Korean people will start to look towards South Korea. They will compare how they only get 5 dollars in North Korea even after slaving away all day but the fact that they can sustain an entire family just by hiding a few of the leaflets…
NK Expert: What you’re saying is that if we are calculating the costs for unification, it’s not a lot of money.
Thae: I say this whenever I give a lecture, whether it’s to government officials or to the general public.
The solution to a peaceful unification and denuclearization in North Korea is simple. We just need to spend some money. However, government officials say that under the current South Korean law, it is not possible to send drones or money to North Korea.
NK Experts: If we want to target the North Korean elites, how should we go about this?
Thae: There are many ways, but for now we must change the current resettlement laws that would encourage elite North Koreans living overseas such as diplomats to defect to South Korea.
Before I came to South Korea, I wondered for a long time what my life would be like if I came to South Korea. In fact, I had to give up a lot to come here. However, no matter how much I searched online all I could find was how at first North Korean defectors get about 7000,000 KRW over a few months and a 20-pyeong apartment (approx.. 60 square metres), and could find nothing on how to get a job which was actually the thing of most interest to me. At the end of the day, in a capitalist society you have to make a life for yourself.
I knew so little about Seoul and thought that I could perhaps run a convenience store and my wife could open a bakery so she spent her days trying to learn to bake. And so when we came to South Korea, we left everything in London and just brought a lot of baking books with us. If I think about it now, it’s ridiculous. South Korean bookstores are overflowing with baking books.
But we knew that if we came to South Korea, we would not be able to escape being treated as second class citizens. However, we calculated that if our children worked hard, they would be able to make their way up to the elite class again and we would be able to recover all that we had lost when we defected.
This is the problem. If South Korea created a law stating that any North Korean officials defecting to South Korea would receive the same treatment as in North Korea, then there would be a wave of them coming over. In my case, as a deputy-ambassador and diplomat, I would want to be paid the same salary as a South Korean diplomat.
NK Expert: That’s a great solution. What have been the reactions of South Korean government officials?
Thae: They say it wouldn’t be easy.
First, the 30,000 North Korean defectors who have already resettled in South Korea would be outraged. The majority of defectors that have come to South Korea came from the hostile and wavering classes, where they received the worst treatment. In general, they hate the North Korean elite.If the South Korean government were to differentiate the North Korean elite to normal defectors, that means that the people who had stuck by Kim Jong-un and lived well in North Korea, would come to South Korea and also live a good life. I can tell you that the free democratized South Korean society would be outraged about giving special treatment to those who had benefitted under Kim Jong-un.
As South Korean citizens, it would be unacceptable.
NK Expert: I can see that.
Thae: However, if we can save our people from the calamities of nuclear weapons and that method is targeting the North Korean elite, shouldn’t we use whatever means possible? If we keep making up excuses of why each solution wouldn’t work then there are no cards left to use and we will end up stuck in a cycle.