North Korea’s elite and younger generations are growing increasingly disillusioned with the Kim Jong-un regime, according to emigre-turned-assemblyman Rep. Tae Yong-ho.
In recent interviews with The Korea Herald, Tae said the purging of former North Korean foreign affairs minister Ri Yong-ho would “instigate a further divide between Pyongyang’s elite and the leadership.”
“The fall of Ri would estrange members of the North Korean elite further from Kim Jong-un,” he said, and that this split may spur a wave of change inside the repressive country.
Dissent seeps in
Tae said that how he’s faring at the National Assembly would cause an “agitation to run through” the political elite of North Korea.
“North Korean elite will see that I wasn’t penalized in South Korea for having served in North Korea in the past. On the contrary, I had a chance to build a life here for myself and my family. The voters of Gangnam chose me as their representative,” he said.
“What they’ll take away from my example is that there can be a place and future for them here too. Just because they worked for the North Korean regime, that doesn’t mean they will be denied a chance of being settled in South Korea.”
Tae said that already in the shadow of the Kim dynasty, elite dissent has quietly been brewing.
“Secret societies were discovered. They were executed or taken political prisoners, and by guilt by association, their families too. At the heart of this dissidence is none other than Kim Il Sung University,” he said.
In his 2018 book, he wrote that he believes intellectuals at Kim Il Sung University would play an instrumental role in a possible, future movement of dissent. He said he still believed that was true.
“It’s the intellectuals and students who are most invested. They long for an open society. Here we say China is repressed, but North Koreans, they envy what people in China have.”
He said his decision to defect from North Korea stemmed from his resolution that he would not let his children live the life he had lived.
“I have said that even the most privileged elite of North Korea are slaves under the regime,” he said. “You have no freedom of emigration across borders as well as within the country. You have no freedom of choice. What you will pursue in life is assigned to you.”
He labeled it “modern-day slavery.” “I wanted to free my children from the shackles,” he said.
The lawmaker said the news that North Korea had purged and possibly executed Ri, the career diplomat who was the chief negotiator in the 2018-19 summits with then-US President Donald Trump, came as a shock.
Tae, who worked with Ri at the North Korean Embassy in the UK from 2004 to 2007, remembered the former foreign minister as soft-spoken and always reading. Not only was Ri an experienced diplomat, his father had close ties with both Kim Jong-un’s parents, Kim Jong-il and Ko Young-hui.
Purged would mean being removed from office, and effectively exiled, Tae explained. South Korea’s intelligence authorities said last week it was unclear whether Ri had been executed.
“Ri’s purge would prompt a breakup between Kim Jong-un and the North Korean elite,” he said. “Not a physical breakup, but it’s going to sow anxiety and unrest in their minds, seeing that even someone like Ri isn’t safe.”
Truth will set North Korea free
Tae said there are “a lot of things that the South Korean government could do without cooperation from Kim Jong-un to bring the two halves of Korea together.” One of them was to open up the door for exchange.
“Tens of thousands of North Koreans cross the border to China to make money and return home. They risk death staying illegally in China, whose police will forcibly return them if they’re caught. South Korea can open up a way for these North Koreans to stay in South Korea instead,” he said.
Currently, the laws on national security bar North Koreans from going back once they enter South Korea.
“Our government could change these laws and allow North Koreans to travel in and out of South Korea without being punished,” he said. “People will come and see with their eyes what it’s like here, and we can let the news spread to people up in the North.”
He said that German reunification was possible because East Germans, who were growing weary of its communist government, were well aware that life was better in West Germany.
“North Korea is so keen on keeping their people in the dark because an informed and knowledgeable public is a threat to the regime.”
Tae believes that Kim Jong-un’s regime will fall from power one day, as time ushers in a new generation of possible dissidents.
“At the moment, Kim Jong-un, who in his late 30s, is relying on people 20 to 30 years his senior to keep the system going. But eventually, Kim will have to work with the younger generation who are entirely different from the older generations in power now,” he said.
Young North Koreans grow up around computers, watching South Korean TV and they are picking up slang and other trends from their South Korean peers.
“A momentum for change may begin to build up as North Korea’s millennials and Gen Z become the dominant generations,” he said. “Among the younger generation, it’s becoming increasingly harder to find true believers in the North Korean system.”
But that change could not be realized on its own.
“Kim Jong-un is already the third generation of his family,” he said. “When he paraded his daughter at the missile launch event, it told the people of North Korea that they will have to endure this state of things for yet another generation of the Kim dynasty to come.”
Korean reunification, he said, was the movement for emancipation of North Koreans.
“Change is in the air in North Korea. South Korea can’t look on and do nothing. We should be doing what we can to precipitate such change, for the people enslaved by the Kim regime.”
Siding with people, not regime
Tae said one of the things that sets South Korea’s conservatives apart from progressives is the stance on North Korea’s problems with human rights abuses.
He said that throughout the previous Moon administration, the post of the ambassador for North Korean human rights was left vacant, and the governmental North Korean human rights foundation never took off. For four years, South Korea did not join in United Nations resolutions criticizing North Korea’s human rights violations.
“All of these were set straight after the Yoon administration came into office,” he said.
The key difference, he said, was that Moon set his mind on making peace with the regime. Appeasing Kim came before calling out his regime’s human rights atrocities, such as in 2020, when North Korean troops shot dead a South Korean fisheries official near the sea border.
“The last administration regarded Kim Jong-un as partner in the drive for peace, and tried hard not to offend him,” he said. “That had been a mistake.”
As South Korea prepares for a new era and unification, “our focus should be North Korea’s people, not its regime,” he said.
He said he does not believe North Korea has an interest in peaceful reunification.
“Kim Jong-un made it clear he wouldn’t give up nuclear weapons for anything. Pyongyang’s new law last year enshrining the right to a preemptive nuclear strike is an affirmation of that will,” he said. “North Korea went on a missile-firing spree as its people were starving.”
In that regard he said the former President Moon was wrong to tell South Koreans and the world that the North Korean leader had the will to denuclearize.
“Moon should have told the truth, which is that Kim Jong-un isn’t willing to denuclearize yet but that our government will continue to hold dialogue and try to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons,” he said.
He said North Korean unmanned aerial vehicles intruding into South Korea’s airspace last month, with one flying over a no-fly zone surrounding the presidential office in Seoul, was the result of the Moon administration “making normal military drills impossible” in the area with the Sept. 19th agreement.
The Yoon administration, while reinitiating human rights programs, was making security a priority at the same time, he said.
Bashed on both ends
When Tae was recruited by a predecessor of the conservative People Power Party as a candidate in the 2020 election, North Korea waged a smear campaign against him -- like it had against other high-profile defectors -- with its state propaganda calling him “trash” and using other derogatory terms.
Tae has not stopped being a target. Just last month, North Korean hackers were found by police to be behind phishing emails impersonating Tae’s office to South Korean national security experts.
The lawmaker says this is nothing new. “Kim Jong-un’s hackers have been harassing me and people around me, trying to hack my phone and computers every chance they can get,” he said.
He said North Korea was attempting to have him ostracized from South Korean politics.
“This is their trying to stand in the way of my networking and socializing. Events like this can make association with me seem like a liability. They want to see me fail as a lawmaker in South Korea,” he said.
Because of where he is from, Tae has faced some open disapproval from a few of his colleagues at the National Assembly, mainly those of the adversary Democratic Party of Korea.
In the wake of the 2020 general election, Democratic Party Rep. Youn Kun-young said two North Korean defectors -- Tae and Rep. Ji Seong-ho -- winning seats was “regrettable.” Youn, who served at former President Moon Jae-in’s Cheong Wa Dae, also said the defectors having access to classified information as lawmakers was “concerning.”
One time another Democratic Party Rep. Kim Byung-kee described Tae as a “person who must have spent most of his life hating South Korea.” “You shouldn’t forget the fact that you served our enemy until a few years ago and be humble,” he was on record as telling Tae.
Tae said these were examples of “the kind of rhetoric that promotes exclusion, the old thinking that people who aren’t from here can’t be leaders.”
In politics as in other realms of society, there should be a “place for people who were once outsiders.”
“We have to work on being more inclusive, not only toward North Korean defectors but also people who come from outside of South Korea in general,” he said. “If people from the North, with whom we share the same history and language, are discriminated against, imagine how harder it must be for immigrants with a completely foreign background.”
“Commie bashing” is also something that Tae finds himself having to deal with.
When he argued for lifting the ban on public access to North Korean broadcasts and other media, which happens to be part of the Yoon Suk Yeol administration’s policy proposals, he said he got called “a commie” and “a spy.”
“This isn’t going to stop me from saying and working for what I believe in.”
Dreaming of ‘one Korea’
Tae said this year he hoped North Korea would accept more COVID-19 aid and other humanitarian assistance from South Korea.
“Most developed countries have vaccinated their people with at least three doses by now. For North Koreans, that’s not the case,” he said. “Like I’ve said, we have to separate the regime from the people.”
Asked if he wasn’t worried about being targeted by the Kim regime, he replied, “Well, a little.”
“Kim Jong-un is the kind of person who is capable of killing his uncle and his half-brother, so if he wished, I imagine coming after me will not be a problem.”
At the end of his term, he said his goal was to have helped build a basis for a lasting change in the relations between North and South Koreas.
He said that the reunification of South Korea “may come sooner than any of us can conceive.” “I hope that by the time I’m in my 80s I would be able to visit my hometown in Pyongyang.”
Tae made history in 2020 by becoming the first North Korean defector to be directly elected into the South Korean parliament, beating his opponent 58 percent to 39 percent. He represents the northern district of Gangnam, one of the wealthiest parts of Seoul.
He sought asylum in South Korea in the summer of 2016 while he was a diplomat at the North Korean Embassy in the UK in pursuit of freedom for his children and himself.