The North Korean Defector BBC News Special

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The North Korean Defector

An interview with Thae Yong-ho, formerly a diplomat for Pyongyang in London, who in August 2016 became one of the highest-ranking officials ever to defect from North Korea.

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The White House hasn't released details but a draft called for a 30


day suspension on visas for people from countries including Syria and


Iraq has been put in place. In August, 2016, Thae Yong-ho became


one of the highest ranking officials ever to defect from North Korea. He


had been a diplomat for Tongan in London. He has been speaking to our


sole correspondent. I'm Steve Evans and this is Seoul,


one of the most prosperous and bustling cities in Asia. It is only


100 miles from Pyongyang, but in terms of atmosphere and attitude it


is 1 million miles away. This is now the home of Thae Yong-ho, the North


Korean diplomat who defected from London. He lives here in secret,


accompanied by a body guards, often in disguise. North Korea called him


human scum and that's because he was so central to North Korea's


diplomatic effort. I will be talking to him in a moment. He lived in


London with his family and the families of two other North Korean


diplomats in the embassy. Outwardly a bush while suburban house. Thae


Yong-ho escorted Kim Jong-un's brother to a rock concert in the


Royal Albert Hall. -- outwardly a Rouge was. He summed the praises of


socialism. And now in South Korea where I met him. He won't say how he


got here. The secret services of the United States or Britain, or South


Korea helped? Hao Wei you getting on in Seoul? But he did talk about how


his family turned him against the regime in Tom Young. -- how are you


getting on. Me and my family, my sons and my wife, did not come to


that kind of conclusion just in one day. At the first stage there is a


kind of ideological debate inside the family, especially between me


and my son is, when my son is entered the UK's university, the


education they received was quite different to what they got in North


Korea. It was something totally different. So at first they started


to ask me questions, why, when they learned history in high school, then


my son after school he came to me and asked which is right, about the


Second World War, the First World War. So there was quite a different


explanation about the same thing in the UK and North Korea. So first of


these questions started to come up to me and then these questions


pushed me into a very difficult situation, e-commerce as a father I


have to tell the truth. -- because as a father. And if I tell the truth


then my explanation would be quite different to what the North Korean


regime, you know, so far brainwashed. But as a father I can't


tell them liars, so I started to tell them the truth. Meanwhile, the


environment of my sons was a little bit difficult for my sons to cope


with. For instance, when my son had long hair, then his friends may ask


questions like, aren't you afraid of being arrested by Kim Jong-un


because you have long hair? In North Korea, if anyone has long hair, that


is the subject of these kinds of questions. They always make my son


is very difficult when they mingle with British friends. And his


friends asked my son questions like why there is no internet, why North


Korea and are forbidden to access internet. My sons asked me, wiry


doesn't the North Korean regime allowed the internet? These very


simple questions. I have to tell them the long story wire, why are


politically. So these kinds of questions and debate is started


inside my family. At that time I thought my sons deserve the truth.


But the truth is very dangerous, isn't it? Because if you were then


putting the party line out in public, but the truth to your


sons... There was a danger that your sons were going to say, my dad


doesn't believe all that stuff, and then your life was in danger. That's


right. I always have to remind my son that they should keep what I


told them in their mind. They should not tell anyone. As a diplomat, I


have to pretend to be loyal to the regime. So all these things put me


in a very difficult condition inside the family and, meanwhile, I learnt


that since my sons knew the truth it would be very difficult for them in


their future to survive in North Korea. Was it gradual? It was a very


long process. Because a year ago even you are going to public


meetings with the Communist Party and singing the praises of Kim


Jong-un and socialism. So did you believe it when he said that? No,


because actually to be honest my doubt on the North Korean regime and


North Korean society started even in the late 1990s. Making the decision


was that I was lucky to bring both of my sons to London, because


diplomats of North Korea should leave one of his children in


Pyongyang, to abuse this to a love between parents and children as a


kind of tool to control the diplomats. But I was lucky. You


still have family in North Korea. Will you ever see them again, will


you ever talk to them again? You have any indication about how they


feel? So far now iambic target of the organisation by the North Korean


regime. -- now I am the target. I am sure that my relatives, my brother


at and sisters, family, by now are all sent to either removed, closed


areas or prison camps. So that really breaks my heart. If you could


imagine your rather shouting at you, why did you do this to me? --


brother. Why did you put me in this place? What would you say? That is


really, you know, a question which I do not like to even think about.


Yes. But that's why I am very much now determined to do everything


possible to pull down the North Korean regime, in order to save not


only my family members but the whole North Korean people from slavery.


The think you will ever see your brother again? I am absolutely sure


and this is my dream, to walk back to my hometown. Lots of people


outside say there is a prison camp system in North Korea, Gulag system.


The regime in Pyongyang emphatically denies that. What's the truth of it


as you see it? All North Korean people know that there is a prison


camps. It is common knowledge inside North Korea. And it is the kind


of... One part of everyday life in North Korea, that if you commit any


crime is which is the threat to the system, then you will be sent to


these prison camps. Thousands of families in Pyongyang were all sent


to the prison camps. Not one or two, thousands of families were sent to


prison camps. There is a new president in Washington with a very


different tone and many policy. And your former country is much closer


to having nuclear weapons. What do you think should be done? The Trump


administration should not acknowledge the status of North


Korea as a nuclear power, because Kim Jong-un and the regime want to


achieve a kind of compromise between North Korea and America. So the


American administration should not fall in this trap. Don't do deals?


To do deals, and they should continue to push the sanctions and


they should continue the concerted effort to sanction North Korea, the


North Korea should give up the nuclear weapons programme itself.


If, when, Kim Jong-un gets the bomb properly, and missiles to deliver,


is he capable of pressing that Hutton and destroying Los Angeles?


Kim Jong-un knows quite well that nuclear weapons are the only


guarantee for his rule. Kim Jong-un, I think, will press the button of


this dangerous weapon when he thinks that his rule and his dynasty is


threatened to collapse. He would destroy Los Angeles, even though the


retaliation would kill him? Yes, because he knew that if... He lose


the power, then it is his last day. So he may do anything... To attack


Los Angeles, because once the people know that in any way he will be


killed, then you can do anything. That is the human beings' normal


reaction. How do you assess Kim Jong-un? He is sometimes painted


outside as a buffoon, as not very bright, and sometimes as well as


being very devious. How do you assess him? You know, North Korean


society can only be held in place by idolising or raising the leader as a


god. So we have to remove the image and the process of idealisation of


Kim Jong-un insight North Korean society. He rules by fear, clearly.


But also I watched three girls in Pyongyang. They didn't know they


were being watched by me. They went up to a statue of his father and


grandfather and they came away with moist eyes. So there's more than the


going isn't there? Explained this complexity.


the children, from the age of three, are brainwashed to bow in front of


the statue of the Kim family, and then when they have lunch or dinner


in kindergarten, they were taught to thank, for the meal. So North Korean


people are growing up in this kind of, you know, idolising process. So


I think the tears which you have seen during your stay in Pyonyang


may be, might be, the true feeling. But the majority of the ruling class


in North Korea, high officials or elites, they now learnt that this


kind of a red entry system has nothing to do with the true


communism -- hereditary. The Kim family only built North Korea for


the Kim family's prosperity alone. And now that people, most of the


people, and especially the elite group, learned that the current


system is nothing but only serves the Kim family alone. That is the


point. So I am sure that one day those elites will turn their back on


Kim Jong-un, and they will also rise up, together with a popular


uprising, yes. In this country, in South Korea, there is sometimes talk


of decapitation. In effect, assassinating Kim Jong-un, if that


were possible. What do you think of that? I think that is unlikely.


Because, you know, even North Korean people do not know the whereabouts


of Kim Jong-un. Myself, I've never seen car, even, in Pyonyang city.


Even the high officials in North Korea do not know where is his


office, where is his house, no. He is a kind of leader in the air.


Whenever he visits some places, or whenever he holds some meetings, it


is already, you know, preset. The process, and even myself, and even


the high officials don't know where he is. Let me talk about how North


Korean diplomats work. What were the kinds of things that you would do to


raise money, or just to please the regime? I'm thinking you escorted


Kim Jong-un's rather to an Eric Clapton concert. Tell me about that,


what happened? Kim Jong-un's brother is a really good musician, at my


impression. He plays guitar very well, and he actually... Actually he


has met Eric Clapton, you know. He watched Eric Clapton's performance


twice in London, and whenever he was at that, you know, in the Albert


Hall to watch Eric Clapton, I can see the tears, even, in his eyes.


And he is only interested in music, nothing else. I took a good many


places, like Parliament Square, you know, Trafalgar Square, and all the


nice, you know, top ten sites and places. But he never asked even a


single question, you know, about these other places, or even the


history, about Britain. He is not interested at all. So I kept on


telling him this and that, you know, and I soon learnt that he is not


interested in those, you know, sightseeing, or history, or


important people. He is only interested in music. Eric Clapton.


Eric Lupton. Did you do anything that you are ashamed of, and did you


do anything criminal? Did you break the law, British law -- Clapton. As


a diplomat of the DPRK? No. I didn't break any law. Not one to do with


making money for the regime, or raising money for the regime?


Because there are all kinds of stories that DPRK diplomats have to


engage in crime to raise money for Pyonyang. Yes, but not all


countries, you know, allow that kind of thing. For instance, the North


Korean diplomats in Europe, you know, especially like Britain and


France where there is a really high level of securities, you know, and


also with the intelligence services, it is really dangerous for not only


North Korean diplomats, or even the other foreign diplomats as well, to


do this kind of illicit activities. In terms of law, we didn't pay, for


instance, the condition charges, you know, the parking fees, North Korean


members in London. So far I think the outstanding parking


accommodation and parking fines are around, to my memory, so around


?100,000. What do you miss about Britain? Your life in Britain seemed


to me to be very English and lots of ways. You played tennis in a rather


nice suburban tennis club. What do you miss about your life that? I


really miss that kind of, you know, life, you know, especially in


dealing. And even now I am really sorry for not saying goodbye to my


tennis club -- Ealing. You know, the members, because they are really


nice, and you know, gentle. And so, if possible, I want to say, you


know, the official goodbye to my old tennis club members. We have been


the member of this club for eight years. My youngest son even joined


this club when he was at the age of eight, you know. And we had a


really, really wonderful coach that, you know? He was an old man and he


thought all members of my family had to play tennis. Me, my kids, my


wife. You know, so the whole tennis club members were just one family


members. And we had... Really still miss English, the spring, the


autumn, where you have this wonderful tennis. So now I really


want to say goodbye and thank you to all my club members. Finally, how do


you think Kim Jong-un will end his days? Is he going to die peacefully


in his own bed? No. Or how? I'm sure that Kim Jong-un regime will one day


collapse by people's uprising. Thank you very much. Thank


In August 2016, Thae Yong-ho became one of the highest-ranking officials ever to defect from North Korea. He had been a diplomat for Pyongyang in London. The BBC's Korea correspondent Stephen Evans met him several times then, and in January 2017 conducted a wide-ranging interview with him in Seoul.