Thae Yong-ho, a former senior official at North Korea’s embassy in London who defected in 2016, appeared before a congressional hearing on Wednesday to provide U.S. lawmakers with some perspective into the mindset of the North Korean populous, and into their enigmatic Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un.

Tensions between North Korea and the United States have continued to escalate in recent months, as North Korea’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and increasingly advanced ballistic missile delivery systems has shifted the world’s perspective of the reclusive state from “all bark and no bite,” to a legitimate threat to the safety of America and its allies.  Since then, the United States and North Korea have exchanged aggressive rhetoric by way of headline-drawing statements from each nation’s respective leaders, but have done little in the way of establishing legitimate diplomatic channels.  In the minds of many, the two nations are on a collision course that ends in war.

That possibility was certainly on the minds of the House Foreign Affairs Committee as they spoke to the former North Korean official.  Open war with North Korea would likely not spill over the vast Pacific Ocean and onto American streets (unless Kim opted to launch a nuclear strike the U.S. and allies failed to intercept), but a real concern many have levied has been regarding the North’s artillery emplacements hidden throughout the mountains just north of the DMZ.  If war were to break out, many believe Kim would order the immediate shelling of South Korean population centers like Seoul, where 20 million people would be within his sights.

Those concerns were brought to Defense Secretary James Mattis’ direct attention by his South Korean counterpart, Defense Minister Song Young-moo, during his visit to the DMZ last week.  On Wednesday, those concerns were further supported by Thae’s testimony.

North Korean officers are trained to press their button without any further instructions from the general command if anything happens on their side,” Thae said.  “We have to remember that tens of millions of South Korean population are living 70 to 80 kilometers away from this military demarcation line.”

He urged the committee to continue to use “soft” power to pressure Kim Jong Un to abide by international norms pertaining to nuclear weapons and human rights.

Until now, the North Korean system has prevailed through an effective and credible reign of terror and by almost perfectly preventing the free-flow of outside information,” Thae Yong-ho testified, but continued to explain that the noose-like grip the Kim regime has maintained over the North Korean populous for generations is beginning to loosen.

“There are great and unexpected changes taking place within North Korea. Contrary to the official policy and wish of the regime, the free markets are flourishing … the citizens do not care about state propaganda but increasingly watch illegally imported South Korean movies and dramas,” he said.

According to Thae, Kim tried to stifle the flow of Western culture into his nation by releasing his father’s collection of foreign films, which were primarily sourced from the Soviet Union, but eventually the release grew to include Disney films like “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast.”  This shift in public interest toward the media of the West could lead to a growing acceptance of Western culture within North Korea.

That shift in popular sentiment is among a litany of potential and perceived threats to Kim’s authority that Thae believes are informing the nation’s aggressive foreign policy.

Today, Kim Jong Un thinks that only nuclear weapons and ICBMs can help him avert the continuing disintegration of the North Korean system,” he said. “He also thinks that the existence of a prosperous and democratic South Korea so close to the border is, by itself, a major threat towards his dynasty. While Kim Jong Un has already long had the tools to destroy South Korea effectively, he also believes it is necessary to drive American forces out of the peninsula.”

Nonetheless, Thae believes the root to a diplomatic victory over Kim’s regime can come through engaging the North Korean people, rather than their government.

These changes, however, make it increasingly possible to think about civilian uprising in North Korea,” Thae told US lawmakers. “As more and more people gradually become informed about the reality of their living conditions, the North Korean government will either have to change and adapt in positive ways for its citizens, or to face the consequences of their escalating dissatisfaction.”

“We cannot change the policy of terror of the Kim Jong Un regime. But we can educate [sic] North Korean population to stand up by disseminating outside information,” he said.


Image courtesy of the Associated Press