Former Deputy Chief of Mission of the North Korean Embassy to the United Kingdom Thae Yong-ho, one of the highest ranking North Korean officers to have defected, traveled to Washington D.C. in early November. His visit to the United States attracted attention as it was the most public activity undertaken by the former diplomat after his defection last year. The purpose of his visit was mainly to testify at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on November 1, along with participating in a panel at a Center for Strategic and International Studies conference and an interview with CNN.
What Thae asserted during his trip can be boiled down to this message: the Kim regime’s belligerent approach can be seen as the young leader’s desperate attempt to survive amid the disintegration of the rogue dynasty, in which information infiltration and fostering defectors is playing a major part. While it is not widely known, the United States, along with South Korea, has long been a major backer of many endeavors to give North Korean people a taste of what it’s like outside their country. The United States has also aided in integrating the defectors, who risked their lives for such freedom, into society. Thae’s testimony centered on describing how such efforts have panned out inside North Korea, with the example of “nose cards,” SD cards meant for smartphones that can be used to transfer games, movies, music, and more from the outside world. Thae explained the origin of the North Korean slang term: “Why do we call it nose card? Well, if somebody wants to search your body whether you have any USBs or whatever, the boys instantly take it out and they put it in their nose.”
According to Thae, the influence of “nose cards” and other information infiltration schemes convinced him that these activities could be an effective way to bring down the regime from the inside.
Thae’s message to the U.S. public was significant in that he reaffirmed that the solution to current tension with the Kim regime should be based on non-violent measures instead of tit-for-tat exchanges of rhetoric. It was refreshing in another respect: as an experienced diplomat, his suggestion to the Trump administration was one of pragmatism and subtlety instead of advocating full-blown retaliation, as other defectors have pleaded in desperation. In other words, according to Thae, the approach the United States had long been working on, before the current crisis, was heading in the right direction.
In the United States, non-traditional security issues regarding North Korea came out as an important agenda item in October 2004, when the “North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004” passed Congress. The Act wrote down both principles and legal guidelines for enhancing human rights conditions in North Korea and supporting democracy and civic formation inside North Korea. It was reauthorized in 2008, 2012, and 2017, which reiterates the importance of information infiltration into North Korea and providing necessary support to North Korean defectors.
Despite the significance of policy coordination between Seoul and Washington in dealing with North Korean human right issues, the actual cooperation has not earned much attention since it is conducted indirectly via non-governmental bodies. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) had worked as a medium of the United States and South Korea to financially assist NGOs in South Korea. Overall, the NED pursued three major goals: to bring international attention to the human rights situation in North Korea, to promote the free flow of information into North Korea, and to enhance the democratic participation of North Koreans inside and outside of North Korea. Based on the dataset of the USAID Foreign Aid Explorer (FAE), which records all types of foreign assistance from the United States, NED awarded around 130 grants related to North Korean human rights from 2003 to 2016, most of which were conducted by NGOs based in South Korea. For example, the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR), NKNet, Open North Korea, and NK Reform Institutes have been long time partners with NED.
Thae’s appeal for non-violent measures, maximum engagement with the North Korean people, and the story of nose cards may sound optimistic and naïve in light of the current threat escalation on the Korean peninsula. However, Thae, the most elite of recent defectors, confirmed that this area is the weakest spot in the Kim regime. Also, most of the people around the world who are concerned about North Korea issues prefer a diplomatic and peaceful solution to the current predicament. Therefore, it would be at least worth taking a look at past methods of engagement with North Korea, weighing the options, and then pondering if past efforts can really be considered less effective compared to the military confrontation under consideration today.
Jongkyun Mok is an Asan Academy Young Fellow (2017-2018) and a student at Sogang University.
Hwan Kang is an Asan Academy Young Fellow (2017-2018) and a student at Seoul National University