• World
  • North Korea

‘Materialism Will One Day Bring Change.’ Why a Senior Defector Believes North Korea’s Days Are Numbered

9 minute read

An influx of capitalist culture and a swelling desire for material goods could one day spell the end for North Korea’s Kim dynasty and hasten the pariah state’s re-entry into the international community. That’s according to a high-ranking defector who spoke recently to TIME.

Thae Yong-ho, a former diplomat who held posts in Denmark, Sweden and the U.K. said that while the regime’s elusive leader, Kim Jong Un, may have no intention of undertaking reforms or giving up his nuclear weapons, change is inevitable.

Thae, who was once a member of North Korea’s elite, defected to South Korea with his wife and two sons in 2016. He lives under the protection of the South Korean government, and travels with an entourage of body guards.

As the DPRK’s deputy ambassador in London, Thae’s main responsibility was to counter criticism of Pyongyang’s human rights record and any negative media coverage. He has described becoming disenchanted with Kim Jong Un’s rule and escaped just as he was being recalled to Pyongyang. Since defecting, Thae has been sharing his insights on the secretive regime and advocating for tougher sanctions.

TIME sat down with Thae in the Taiwanese capital Taipei, amid news that U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim have been expressing interest in another summit.

North Korea says it wants to restart denuclearization talks with the U.S., but it’s also been conducting new missile tests. What’s going on?

It has long been North Korea’s policy to make America and South Korea used to North Korea’s pattern of provocations [even] amid the dialogue campaign. It is not the first time North Korea did this. North Korea wants control. They do not want to be controlled.

President Trump has pursued a strategy of cozying up to hostile leaders, including Kim Jong Un, in the hopes that it will pay off at the negotiating table. What do you think has been the effect of this?

I think President Trump is playing a very dangerous game with North Korea.

President Trump met three times with Kim Jong-Un, [but] in the past one and a half years, Trump has not taken any significant measures to stop the nuclearization of North Korea. Meanwhile Kim Jong Un has achieved quite a lot. First, he avoided a so-called military option, which President Trump had emphasized quite often in 2017. Second, he stopped President Trump from adding additional sanctions. Third, thanks to these meetings, Kim Jong Un actually strengthened his legitimacy and absolute rule over North Korea.

The President of America has so far flown to Asian cities Singapore, Hanoi and Panmunjom, to meet Kim Jong Un. In America’s history, I don’t think the President has ever traveled that kind of long distance to meet the leader of a small country.

Have the U.S.-North Korea negotiations made any progress toward denuclearization?

So far, no. There are a lot of signs that North Korea is continuing to produce its nuclear material and, even this year, North Korea conducted more than nine short-range missile tests. North Korea has shown it has new types of missiles. So actually, North Korea’s nuclear capability is more updated thanks to this current dialogue atmosphere with the Trump Administration.

What would be a more effective strategy?

In Hanoi last February it became very clear that Kim Jong Un will not destroy all his nuclear production facilities. He is not interested in the denuclearization process. Once this is proved, then America has to take very resolute actions by increasing additional economic sanctions.

President Trump has made it clear he wants the Nobel Prize for making peace with North Korea. What does Kim Jong Un want from these talks?

First, he wants nuclear status in this region. Kim Jong Un thinks the only way to achieve nuclear status is to buy the time. Like what India and Pakistan did.

Second, is that through this dialogue process with President Trump, Kim Jong Un, a man in his thirties, all of a sudden raised his rank to the same level as other important players in this region, like President Trump, Xi Jinping, Putin, President Moon. And domestically, he proved to North Korean people that he is very capable, even though he is young.

What would be wrong with normalizing relations with a nuclear North Korea? We’ve accepted nuclear India and Pakistan.

India and Pakistan justified their acquisition of nuclear weapons as a deterrent to prevent a war with each other. But North Korea is the first country to use its weapons to threaten America. No nuclear state in the world has directly threatened one specific country’s security. And if America allows North Korea to be a nuclear state then I think many countries will follow suit. North Korea’s nuclear issue is not just about North Korea, this impacts the whole international non-proliferation objective.

You’ve referred to Trump’s policy on North Korea as the “Trump Doctrine” and compared it to the “Nixon Doctrine,” what do you mean by this?

In the 1950s and early 60s, American policy toward China was containment. They wanted to isolate China. But when China succeeded in testing the hydrogen bomb in 1967, the American strategy on the whole region started to change. President Nixon visited China in 1972 and America totally shifted, accepting China’s nuclear status.

What could this mean for the Korean Peninsula in the coming years? The recent developments are very alarming. The reality is that nobody is really serious about stopping this birth of a new nuclear state.

So the Trump Doctrine would hand North Korea what it wants?

Not everything it wants. But the Trump Doctrine would accept the birth of a new nuclear state in this region.

You’ve said that North Korean people, both regular citizens and the elite, don’t believe in the system. What gives you this impression?

If you read North Korea’s propaganda, it seems that everything is working, the country is prosperous, whatever. But if you look at the reality, the current regime can be termed a socialist skeleton. The bones have a socialist structure, but the flesh has already turned capitalist. The number of black markets and free markets are increasing every year. If you read Rodong Sinmun, North Korean media, they said North Korea will not collapse because of a military strike by imperialists, but it is possible if the young generations are not educated properly.

What do they mean by ‘educated properly’? What’s different about the younger generation?

If you look at the millennial generation of North Korea, they are the only ones who have grown up with computers. When computers were introduced in late 1990s, all of a sudden there was a boom of English learning. If you want to use a computer, you have to know English, right?

And they are not interested in watching communist or socialist cultural content. They are only interested in American or South Korean movies or dramas. I think that the young generations’ eyes are not on ideological things, but on material things. And even though the North Korean regime wants to stop it, they can’t stop this future.

Is there any indication that this infiltration of foreign culture is changing North Korea?

Of course. When I was young, when I dated girls, at that time we called each other ‘comrade.’ But now, the young generations in North Korea, they do not use ‘comrade,’ they use something like South Korea, oppa, like brother. When texting, they copy the South Korean [slang]. So the language of the culture is changing. Their dressing style is also moving toward South Korea’s. Now young ladies are eager to buy good brands of handbags. I think this new demand for materialism will one day bring change. I am absolutely sure that within 20 years, demonstrations similar to those in Hong Kong will take place in North Korea.

Is there anyone trying to change the regime from within?

At this moment no. But if we look back to what happened in Communist states in the past, for instance what happened in the former Soviet Union, Gorbachev was the third generation. When he entered power, he started to make changes. The military or security forces couldn’t halt this process because the new young forces demanded it. Now, in China, [President] Xi Jinping is second generation, while the demonstrators in Hong Kong are third generation. Of course, this is an ideological confrontation, but actually, also, this a generational confrontation. Now in North Korea, Kim Jong Un is the only one in his thirties in the North Korean leadership. The people around him are all in their late sixties, seventies or eighties. So power is still in the hands of the ruthless and merciless second generation. The young generation knows that if they stand up the crackdown will be immediate. But after 10 or 20 years, when the power is with the [third] generation, I think the people will be brave enough to go to the streets.

Since Kim Jong Un is third generation any chance he’ll embrace reforms?

No, this is Kim’s family business. They want to the dynasty to go on and on. So I think the final change of North Korea will be the collapse of the Kim Dynasty.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Laignee Barron / Taipei at Laignee.Barron@time.com