The international community has become increasingly alarmed by North Korea’s actions after the test-launch of its improved Intercontinental Ballistic Missile– the Hwasong 15 – on November 29. The Hwasong 15 is the most powerful North Korean missile tested so far and is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. North Korean officials claimed the missile is capable of striking anywhere on the US mainland. We asked North Korean defectors what they thought about these increasing tensions and the international relations of North Korea more generally. This article is part of our miniseries of interviews. (Featured Image © Uwe Brodrecht)
North Korea’s recent developments have led to heated debates on whether North Korea would start a (nuclear) war. We were curious about the views of North Koreans on the recent tensions between the international community and North Korea. We had a chance to interview two North Korean defectors – Ji Yong (30, false name), a former employee at the National Security Department of North Korea, and Nam Gyu Park (25, real name), who defected from North Korea around the age of 12.
Question: Do you think the recent threats of Kim Jong Un regarding the use of nuclear weapons should be taken seriously? Several researchers believe that it is unlikely that it will lead to a nuclear war. What are your views on this?
Ji Yong: “There is a small chance that Kim Jong-Un’s purpose is to instigate a (nuclear) war. Kim Jong Un knows a war of any form, will be a disadvantage for him. The weaponry used in the North Korean army is outdated and cannot compete with the U.S. army’s technology. Furthermore, many of the North Korean soldiers suffer from malnutrition and are simply not capable of fighting.”
Nam Gyu: “The reason for Kim Jong Un’s provocative actions is that he wants to get the attention of the international community. He wants them to know that North Korea should be taken seriously.”
Q: What are your views on President Trump and how he is handling the situation with North Korea? Trump has threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” and reconfirmed his tough rhetoric against North Korea during his visit to Japan. However, during his visit to South Korea, he suddenly urged North Korea to negotiate and emphasized the power of negotiations.
Ji Yong: “In my opinion, it seems that there is no strategy behind Trump’s words. I believe that Trump’s actions lead to further international instability. I see the provocative words and actions of both Trump and Kim Jong Un as something negative. Both leaders know that a war is undesirable for both sides, and that the other party is unlikely to attack. What is important, is that they should not be driven by their emotions and should start thinking more strategically.”
Nam Gyu: “I agree with Ji Yong in that Trump does not seem to have a certain logical strategy in dealing with North Korea. However, I hope that Trump will stand strong against North Korea (and go for an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ kind of strategy), and that this will hopefully lead to the fall of Kim Jong Un’s regime.”
Q: South Korean President Moon Jae-In recently pledged that he would send 8 million dollars of aid to North Korea, separating the humanitarian from the political. However, due to rising tensions with North Korea, many South Koreans disagreed with this. What do you think of this humanitarian aid?
Ji Yong: “Most of the time when the North Koreans receive aid, they think it is coming from the North Korean government. For example, if they see a UN stamp on the packaging, they would think, ‘Our government is so great. Even when we don’t work, we receive food from abroad’. This is why I do not support South Korea’s current approach to send aid, because North Koreans generally don’t know why they are receiving it. If they would know that it is due to the fact that their government cannot provide for them, I would support it.”
Nam Gyu: “99 percent of the aid given to North Korea goes to the top officials. The remaining 1 percent goes to the people. Thus, it doesn’t make a big difference. It would be better if the aid was used in negotiations – for example, providing aid in exchange for the opening of the borders.”
Ji Yong: “I question why Moon Jae-In chose to announce that he would be giving aid to North Korea while tensions are high. Aid can be given at any time, but why now? What is his underlying motive?”
Q: Do you see any possible solutions for the future? Should Japan, China, South Korea and the U.S. make a strong front and threaten Kim Jong Un, or should they give in to his demands?
Ji Yong: “If there was a solution, wouldn’t it have already been solved? I used to believe that everything could be fixed with bombs. However, now I see that change needs to happen from within. The North Korean citizens should change, and it should happen from the bottom up. Furthermore, the international community should ignore the actions of North Korea. By testing and shooting missiles, they are just trying to get attention. Since they are getting that attention, their actions keep getting bigger (e.g. more frequent missile launches)”
Nam Gyu: “The international community should apply more pressure to North Korea. Without this, they will not yield. Aid can be used as a tool to pressure them. I hope the international community will go strong against North Korea. For example, all countries can end trade relations with North Korea and ban tourism to North Korea. These actions would have a great impact on North Korea’s economy and would force them to negotiate and possibly fulfill the demands of the international community.”
Q: Do you think the Kim dynasty will eventually fall? What will it take?
Ji Yong: “This all depends on the North Korean citizens. We should send information to the North Korean citizens so that they will become suspicious of the North Korean political system. Right now most North Koreans believe that only a member of the Kim family can become the country’s leader. This should change.
The awareness of the average North Korean citizen matters. We should get them familiarized with terms such as “human rights” and “democracy”, and help them realize that the way they are living isn’t necessarily normal. I do not believe that international pressure (and the carrot and stick approach) will change the living conditions or political system in North Korea. The same goes for NGO’s. NGO’s are important, but their impact is limited.”
Nam Gyu: “I believe the Kim dynasty will fall once Kim Jong Un dies, and doesn’t have a new heir. However, the political system in North Korea can only change with the help of the elite society in North Korea. It is the elite that controls the economy in North Korea, so their awareness matters too. If more members of the elite, like the North Korean diplomat Thae Yong Ho, defect and are able to show that they are living a good life abroad, more might chose to defect.
Another scenario is that by realizing that those who have defected are living a better life than those living in North Korea, the perception inside of North Korea might change, which could in turn instigate change within North Korea. I believe that there is already enough information within North Korea about the outside world. It is now up to the elites to help change North Korea.”
Please note that this interview reflects their personal opinions and does not represent the general view of North Korean defectors. A second interview will follow soon.