[Herald Interview] What Britain’s liberal air taught Thae Yong-ho

By Joel Lee

“More often than not the oppressive regimes collapse not because they are overthrown, but because of their internal inconsistencies.”

  • Published : Nov 27, 2017 - 17:28
  • Updated : Nov 27, 2017 - 17:28

After Thae Yong-ho, former deputy chief of the North Korean Embassy in London, defected to South Korea in the summer of 2016, UK Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific Mark Field had a chance to meet him in Seoul in late August during an official visit.

Field grasped why Thae, acclimated to Britain’s liberal democratic society, risked the lives of himself and his family to flee to the South, forsaking their diplomatic privileges.

“What the story shows is that Thae lived in London and saw his children grow up in a liberal and democratic society, and how much they benefitted from it. It must have impacted him during his time as North Korean diplomat,” Field said in an interview at the British Embassy in Seoul on Friday.

“The message to be taken from this is that keeping any lines of communication and diplomacy is critical to gradually changing the system. You never know just the impact it will have down the road. More often than not the oppressive regimes collapse not because they are overthrown, but because of their internal inconsistencies.”

UK Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific Mark Field speaks to The Korea Herald at the British Embassy in Seoul on Friday. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

The more lines of communication there are between the world and the government in Pyongyang, the higher the chance of reconfiguring future generations’ thinking, Field said.

“That’s how diplomacy works. It’s frustrating and takes a long time. But you have to be patient,” he said. “The British and Korean peoples should be confident and proud of our values: individual freedom, the rule of law, democracy and human rights. We should be confident in slowly, steadfastly and painstakingly spreading these values around the world.”

He added that he strongly believed there were elites ensconced in Pyongyang’s upper echelons who may staunchly back the regime on their countenance, but harbor doubts about their future and switch sides when push comes to shove.

Thae, meanwhile, has acted as a born-again preacher of democracy and freedom, exposing North Korea’s state-sponsored crimes, corruption and injustice and imploring its downfall through speaking tours in South Korea and around the world. The former diplomat said he did not fear his death should North Korean assassins try to kill him. Thae and his family live under the protection of security personnel. 

Thae Yong-ho, former deputy chief of the North Korean Embassy in London, defected to South Korea in the summer of 2016. He has since been a fierce critic of the North Korean regime, exposing critical information to the outside world. (Yonhap)

During a tour of the United States from Oct. 30 through Nov. 6, Thae met with high-ranking US government officials, politicians, think tank academics and journalists, and asserted that a “Pyongyang Spring” is possible by relentlessly implanting outside information and “soft power” contents into the North.

“The North Korean regime cannot stop its people from watching South Korean movies and dramas even by threatening to punish them, or actually executing them,” he told local media after returning from his US tour. “South Korean soap operas and K-pop music have long infiltrated the country. The regime is hell-bent on reversing the tide, but unable to stop it.”

What leader Kim Jong-un fears the most is information that exposes the contradictions of the mythical, insuperable nation he and his predecessors have contrived, thereby triggering the downtrodden people to rise up in arms against the elites, Thae said. He added the probability of a revolution was gradually increasing. Change in the North is “100 percent possible given a continuation of soft power infiltration.”

In particular, Thae stressed the importance of “tailor-made content,” explaining basic concepts of democracy, freedom and human rights and designed to sow doubts in North Korean minds and make them question their lot.

“The ultimate objective of pressure should be regime change or transformation of the regime,” he underscored. “We must have conviction that the regime will either change or capitulate. Time is on our side.”

Thae Yong-ho, former chief of mission at the North Korean embassy in the United Kingdom, testifies during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, November 1, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Getty Images)

Field, on his second official visit to Korea as state minister since assuming the post on June 13, met with Korean Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung-nam and other officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Regarding the international sanctions placed on North Korea for its unrelenting nuclear and missile development, Field, citing British diplomatic sources at the UK Embassy in Pyongyang, said, “It’s very clear that the sanctions posed by the international community are beginning to have an impact on North Korean lives.”

The UK government has suspended its aid program for North Korea, announced the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Friday.

The British Foreign Ministry said in a recent report that Pyongyang had received about 240,000 pounds ($320,000) of official development assistance from London from last April through March this year, while advancing its nuclear and missile arsenal. The money purportedly went to five projects covering English education; the teaching of British values and norms to North Korean officials; the improvement of access to rehabilitative services for people outside Pyongyang; the repair of mobile waterworks in Kangwon Province; and the provision of relief in post-disaster emergency situations.

On defense cooperation with South Korea, Field said, “Cybersecurity and cyber-defense in both military and civilian sectors will continue to grow from strength to strength in the years to come.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects a tractor factory in November. (Korea Central News Agency)

Field served on the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee from September 2010 through March 2015, and from 2015 through 2017 served as the Conservative Party’s Vice Chairman of International Affairs, a role that involved extensive diplomatic contact and work with senior figures in sister parties around the world. He was first elected as the Conservative Member of Parliament for the Cities of London and Westminster in 2001, and worked as a corporate lawyer prior to entering politics.

On Britain exiting the European Union, Field said both sides were working hard to reach an agreement by the European Council meeting on Dec. 14-15 on three main issues: the rights of EU nationals in the UK and British nationals in the EU; Northern Ireland’s border with Ireland; and the financial settlement referred to as the “divorce bill.” That would pave the way for the two sides to move onto discussions about the terms of trade and transition period.

“Though there will be a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the issues over the next few months, businesses will continue to trade regardless of whether there is an FTA (free trade agreement) or not,” the politician said. “I don’t believe in zero-sum games, I don’t think it’s the way diplomacy should operate either.”

By Joel Lee (