|“I lived in that system for more than 50 years. ... To be honest, my life in North Korea was nothing but the life of the slave.” |
- Thae Yong-ho, former Pyongyang ambassador (May 4, 2017)
|“An American first strike would likely trigger one of the worst mass killings in human history.”|
- Mark Bowden, The Atlantic (July 2017)
In June, three northern soldiers defected across the perilous North-South border within a two-week time frame. Two individuals made the journey on foot — somehow traversing the heavily-mined, vigilantly-guarded Military Demarcation Line — while another escaped via the Han River by swimming. He reportedly screamed “Don't kill me, I am here to defect!”
Such desertions are decidedly telling as conscripts assigned to this specific border area are deemed to be among Kim Jong-un's most reliable fighters. The chances of death while fleeing in the above fashion are pronounced. Notably, there was no trading of gunfire nor injuries reported.
On June 27, Voice of America published an interview with Ri Jong-ho, described as among the highest-level escapees to date. Ri defected to South Korea in Oct. 2014 and was once regarded as one of the Kim dynasty's most dependable. He was awarded the honorary moniker "Hero of Labor" in 2002, was lavished "luxury items" — commonplace to South Koreans — and was employed at central agencies managing regime finances and overseeing major economic projects. Ri was reportedly "directly appointed" by Kim Jong-il.
Notwithstanding, he fled in horror alongside his wife and two children. Ri was repulsed by extensive killings and an inhuman purge of thousands of regime elites — linked to Jang Song-thaek’s execution — at Kim Jong-un's decree. Jang, Kim's uncle-by-marriage turned enemy, was formerly the North’s second-most eminent figure.
Witnessing brutality unfolding against supposedly securely entrenched members of the privileged class as himself, Ri came to fear “what could have happened to him and his family at any minute.” Most North Koreans, even amid elite communities, confidentially share Ri’s sense of “gut-twisting terror."
Ri stated to VOA’s Korean Service:
“My family and I were in disbelief after seeing (in person) senior officials I knew being killed with anti-aircraft guns and my kids’ friends being locked up in prison camps ... Of course, there had been executions and purges from time to time, but there were none like the ones that took place between late 2013 and early 2014.”
Ri, in his 60s, resides today with his family in America after being a “faithful North Korean civil servant” for over three decades.
Fresh elite defections have been coming to light with astonishing consistency. On July 1, five ex-Pyongyang residents abandoned everything to escape. Reportedly “disillusioned with North Korea after Kim Jong-un came to power,” they traversed the de facto maritime border in a small fishing boat — no uncomplicated feat.
The defectors were reported as an elite scientist — who graduated from Pyongsong Institute of Science — with, among others, his son and his son’s girlfriend, who are also graduates. Matriculation at such establishments is exclusively reserved for those whose parentage has been rigorously scrutinized; the cardinal prerequisite for enrollment being an unblemished record of reverence and devotion towards the totalitarian autocrat.
Following Kim’s ascendancy, defectors have been alarmingly less able to reach South Korea or other regions which might respect their legitimate claims to asylum; Kim has heightened policing of the Sino-North Korea border and enacted the intensification of inhumane punishments for would-be escapees and their loved ones.
Notwithstanding, there has been an upsurge in defections by North Korea's elite.
An ex-corporal who escaped across the North-South border on June 13 indicated that hearing North Korean defectors testifying in loudspeaker broadcasts over the Demilitarized Zone contributed to his decision to defect; he reaffirmed that “North Korean soldiers are complaining about insufficient supplies.”
Thae Yong-ho – Pyongyang’s former deputy ambassador to London, who incensed Kim Jong-un by defecting to the South with his immediate family last year – and his wife are reportedly of "sacred Paekdu bloodline" lineage, indicating their family was among the North’s most advantaged.
Their former elevated status is apparent when considering Thae had been assigned to the coveted London post and resided in the UK as a diplomat for an abnormally protracted 10 years. He was even permitted to have both of his children with him – all signs indicative of unusual confidence in him.
Professor Yang Moo-jin from Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies observed Thae seemed to have had "impeccable credentials" and "must have been considered very loyal and trustworthy in Pyongyang" at the time of his escape.
Essentially everyone – outside of immediately family – readily mistook Thae's terror-induced veneer of unshakable loyalty as being unfeigned; commentators still tend to overlook the high stakes life-and-death struggle even high-ranking North Korean officials are daily ensnared in.
For example, a former charge d’affaires at Britain’s embassy in Pyongyang, who had extended interaction with Thae, confessed in quasi-disbelief when the courageous man defected that he “never in front of me expressed any ideological doubts.”
After escaping, Thae declared his unequivocal opposition to Kim. He also underscored the North's human rights crisis, a cause he formerly was terrorized to strive against. He has effectively "declared war" on the Kim dynasty, stating to the BBC, “I am very determined to do everything possible to pull down the regime to save not only my family members but also the whole North Korean people from slavery.”
The prime impetus for Ri’s defection – Kim's mass atrocities against an unprecedented number of elite families amid the attempted erasure of Jang and his perceived loyalists – likewise amplified Thae's resolution to exit the system, which he had been considering for some time despite it being a potentially fatal transition.
After Kim Jong-un’s assumption of unqualified power, an unheard-of number of additional high-ranking military and senior regime figures – independent of Jang’s case – have met a devastating end.
Jang was allegedly plotting revolution; others who have been eliminated such as ex-army chief Ri Yong-ho – not the foreign minister – may too have been devising a coup, according to reports.
Among Kim’s charges against his uncle, Jang was condemned for freeing “the undesirable and alien elements, including those who had been dismissed and relieved of their posts after being severely punished for disobeying the instructions” of the tyrannous dictatorship. Jang is held to be the architect of a large-scale January 2012 amnesty that resulted in the release of select prisoners – all of whom, in view of his execution, are believed to be re-incarcerated in death camps or to have already been killed.
Some would-be omniscient analysts proclaimed that the endeavored wiping-out – now proven unsuccessful – of Jang's "line" signified that Kim had smoothly and efficiently consolidated his rule. Still, both Thae and elite defector Ri by some means survived the merciless victimization of Jang’s perceived sympathizers. Although they weren't targeted, both were nevertheless secretly sympathetic towards Jang and aghast by what transpired, ultimately resulting in their respective defections. This much is certain – many more who disdain Kim Jong-un, as Thae and Ri did, exist within the region today.
There are many indicators that a large number of the population – even among North Korea’s elite – secretly share Thae and Ri’s thirst for comprehensive reforms, such as the basic respect for human rights and protection from arbitrary arrests or executions. With the assistance and backing of South Korea and the international community, similar individuals could facilitate a collaborative peaceful unseating of Kim, ushering the long-awaited liberation of the North's prison camps and unification.
In apprehending Kim’s recalcitrance, it is solely through the identification of and cooperation with such persons that a “soft landing” and peaceful reunification become feasible. What is most immediately needed, then, are vigorous and wide-ranging initiatives that focus on credibly assuring all northerners of southerners' goodwill vis-à-vis the general population – including elites – and the dethroning of one man.
By Robert Park
Robert Park is a founding member of the nonpartisan Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocie in North Korea, minister, musician and former prisoner of conscience. -- Ed.