Despite President Donald Trump’s new line that North Korea should come to the table and “make a deal,” that’s not possible in the short term, according to the highest-ranking North Korean official ever to defect from the regime. To solve the North Korea problem, Trump must play the long game against Kim Jong Un and do more to break his iron grip on the lives and minds of the North Korean people.
The United States should continue to ramp up “maximum pressure” on the Kim regime and seek diplomatic engagement where it makes sense, said Thae Yong Ho, who was deputy chief of mission at North Korea’s embassy in London before he defected with his wife and two sons in 2016. But, he said, Kim is not going to sit down to talk until he reaches his nuclear objectives and even then, he won’t talk on Washington’s terms.
“North Korea’s development of ICBM [missiles] and nuclear [weapons] is reaching the final goal,” Thae told The Post in an interview. “I don’t think there are any immediate measures to stop this process. Now Kim Jong Un is telling his population that victory is at the doorstep.”
Kim is determined to achieve the capability of mounting an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead. But after Kim achieves the capability he seeks, he does intend to negotiate, Thae said. Kim believes he can compel the United States and the world to accept North Korea as a nuclear state and lift sanctions.
But the United States shouldn’t rush to the negotiating table, Thae said. Rather, Trump should stay the course to show Kim that he can’t blackmail the world and show the North Korean people that nuclear weapons will not solve their problems. Then, pressure on Kim will build up from within his country.
“If these kinds of sanctions are still going on and even strengthened, then what can Kim Jong Un tell his population?” said Thae. “ICBM [missiles] and nuclear [weapons] cannot produce any rice, any food, any better life for North Koreans. We should regard this issue in a long perspective.”
To build real pressure on Kim, the international community must do more to end the isolation of the North Korean people, Thae argued. He is appealing for the West to repeat the strategy prior to German unification, when Western television and radio reports were broadcast throughout East Germany. That opened the eyes of a population isolated under a communist system and eventually laid the groundwork for change.
“So far, the American government has neglected the human factor,” Thae said. “We should give the South Korean dream to North Koreans, like the world had the American dream in the past.”
There’s broad dissatisfaction with Kim among North Korean elites and common people alike, according to Thae. Since coming to power in December 2011, Kim has carried out several purges, reportedly killed hundreds of officials and consolidated power through a rein of terror and a tight control over information.
Some international broadcasting and entertainment does reach North Korea, but it’s not enough, Thae said. New technologies, including satellite broadcasting and thumb drives, create the opportunity for opening the eyes of the North Korean people and puncturing the lies of the Kim regime.
“I’m sure that once the people of North Korea are educated enough, they will not tolerate this kind of dictatorship and dynastic system,” Thae said. “It can bring change inside North Korea, definitely.”
Thae’s plea for patience and a long-term strategy to undermine the Kim regime’s credibility is at odds with the Trump administration’s approach. The Trump team believes North Korea cannot be allowed to achieve the capability to deliver a nuclear bomb to America’s shores. Trump has repeatedly threatened to use military force to prevent that outcome.
But the South Korean government is committed to avoiding war. South Korean President Moon Jae-in called for dialogue during his news conference with Trump. Even the hawkish South Korean opposition is calling on the Trump administration to focus on containment and deterrence against North Korea.
Whether the goal is to change the calculus of the Kim regime or to change the regime itself, devoting more resources to breaking the isolation of the North Korean people is a low-cost, high-reward strategy. It might also avoid a war that would cost millions of lives.
Josh Rogin is a Washington Post columnist.