Use soft power to challenge Pyongyang’s grip on information, top North Korea defector says


A high-ranking North Korean defector is recommending that U.S. lawmakers greatly increase the dissemination of information inside the isolated country, saying funding for such efforts pales in comparison to U.S. military spending but will ultimately break the regime, The Hill reports.

“We cannot change the policy of terror of the Kim Jong Un regime. But we can educate North Korean population to stand up by disseminating outside information,” Thae Yong Ho (above) told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. “The U.S. is spending billions of dollars to cope with the military threat. And yet how much does the U.S. spend each year on information activities involving North Korea in a year? Unfortunately, it may be tiny fraction.”

His comments coincided with reports from Reuters that the United States is quietly pursuing direct diplomacy with North Korea, according to a senior State Department official.

Credit: NK News

The highest-level North Korean defector in two decades says America should bring change peacefully by challenging the totalitarian regime’s grip on information rather than resorting to military action, AP adds:

Thae said Kim’s weapons development also reflected anxiety, after Arab Spring uprisings against authoritarian governments in the Mideast, about the possibility of the U.S. and other Western nations mounting a “humanitarian intervention” bombing campaign as occurred in Libya in 2011 and led to Moammar Gadhafi’s ouster.

If there are street protests inside North Korea, Thae said “there is no doubt that Kim Jong Un would stamp it out mercilessly with his forces, even tanks.” He said Kim believes that with a nuclear-tipped missile, “then he can prevent that kind of humanitarian intervention.”

“I strongly believe in the use of soft power before taking any military actions,” Thae Yong Ho, chief of mission at Pyongyang’s embassy in London until he defected in 2016, told the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Lacking legitimacy

The West must use “maximum engagement” with the Kim Jong Un regime, Thae said, adding that he believes Kim’s intense need to launch missiles and build nuclear weapons came out of his own insecurities and a need to prove his legitimacy after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, VOA reports.

“I strongly believe if we educate the North Korean population, we can change North Korea.” He said nothing can stop what he called Kim Jong Un’s “reign of terror,” saying Kim would use soldiers and tanks against North Korean street protesters. “Whenever he watched senior leaders’ attitude around him, he thought there was a little looking down upon from the senior leaders because he was the third son. A lot of the North Korean population don’t know that he is the third son,” which contributes to Kim’s sense of lacking legitimacy.

Thae – who defected to South Korea in mid-2016 from the North Korean Embassy in the UK – outlined four key reasons for what he called Kim’s “obsession” to develop such capabilities, including Kim’s lack of initial legitimacy when first assuming power, inherent risks in pursuing economic reforms, concerns with the military and lessons learned from intervention in countries such as Libya. Kim’s lack of legitimacy was due to a number of factors, NK News adds:

  • Firstly, unlike his father Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un was elevated to succeed the top position in North Korea on relatively short notice. …“When Kim Jong Un first became the leader of North Korea in 2012, at his early stages he thought that the absolute authority of the power of the new leader of North Korea would naturally delegate to him. But what he experienced in his first few years…was not the case,” Thae said….
  • The second key factor that influenced Kim’s pursuit of nuclear weapons was the lesson Kim learned from his possible involvement in domestic economic policies prior to his elevation to the leadership. Thae believes that Kim was involved in North Korea’s attempted currency reforms in 2009, which resulted in a significant failure …[and] created significant economic chaos….

“There have now been some 30,000 defectors who have been able to escape from North Korea,” said Carl Gershman (right), president of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group, which co-sponsored the CSIS forum. “All of them bring their own experience and insights, but none has a more intimate understanding than Thae Yong-ho of the North Korean elite, from which he comes. And none whom I have talked to has done more thinking about how to communicate with the North Korean people, whose complete isolation from the outside world is only now beginning to break down.”

“No solution to the North Korea problem will be possible, in my view, without ending the isolation of the North Korean people, and bringing both elite North Koreans and the mainstream population into communication with their neighbors in South Korea and with the international community more generally,” he added.

‘Terror cannot imprison thought’

“The importance of increasing the flow of a broad range of information into the country cannot be overemphasized,” said Roberta Cohen, co-chair emeritus of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. “Desperately-needed change in North Korea will require a change in thinking. Education and information will expand that thinking. No reign of terror can imprison thoughts,” she told the forum.

North Koreans are increasingly interested in outside media and free markets (left) flourish, said Thae.

“Contrary to the official policy and wish of the regime, the free markets are flourishing. As more and more people get used to free and capitalist-style markets, the state-owned socialist economic system becomes increasingly forgotten about,” he said. “The citizens do not care about state propaganda but increasingly watch illegally imported South Korean movies and dramas. The domestic system of control is weakening as the days go by.”

Those changes make it “increasingly possible” to consider a civilian uprising in North Korea similar to the Arab Spring, Thae said. “Today, Kim Jong Un thinks that only nuclear weapons and ICBMs can help him avert the continuing disintegration of the North Korean system.”

Addressing an audience of about 200 people with confidence and smiles, Thae on Tuesday said the North Korean system can only endure through a “reign of terror” and by preventing outside information getting in. He said that task is increasingly difficult because of the availability inside North Korea of portable digital devices and easily hidden memory cards, AP reports:

“The technology has developed dramatically in the past five years,” Thae told the CSIS forum. He said North Korean youths call the commonly used SD memory cards “nose cards” because they can insert them in their nostrils to escape detection during a body search. “You can’t change the reign of terror policy of the internal regime, but we can do the dissemination of outside information inside North Korea,” he said.

Thae’s comments come less than a week after the brutality of North Korea’s government was exposed in a ground-breaking new analysis – The Parallel Gulag: North Korea’s “An-jeon-bu” Prison Camps. The report, from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), casts fresh light by publishing previously unseen satellite images which reveal a parallel network of prisons controlled by the North Korean Ministry of People’s Safety.

Thae’s arguments are in synch with the perspectives and practices of democracy assistance groups seeking to promote change within the Hermit Kingdom.

The dissemination of information within North Korea and the availability of knowledge about developments within the totalitarian state amounts to a remarkable shift, said NED’s Gershman. Coupled with an emerging process of marketization, the country appears to be entering a new phase which raises questions about the regime’s resilience, he told a NED forum on the jangmadang (private markets).

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