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Diplomat-turned-defector calls on North Korean youth to 'stand up' for denuclearisation

Thae Yong Ho, former North Korean diplomat, who defected to South Korea in 2016

Former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho believes Kim Jong-un will never give up his nuclear program and that it is up to the country's youth to “stand up for change”.

Former high-ranking North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho recently made his first trip to Australia for seminars in Sydney and Melbourne, in which he offered unique insights and analysis on the world’s most secretive state.

In August 2016, he defected to South Korea with his family after walking out of the North Korean Embassy in London where he worked as a deputy ambassador.

The defection made him both internationally famous and an assassination target for the regime he once served.

A file picture showing the North Korean Embassy in London, Britain.
A file picture showing the North Korean Embassy in London, Britain.
AAP

During a seminar at Melbourne University on Wednesday, Mr Thae said change inside North Korea would only come by way of resistance by the younger generations.

Amid wavering US-North Korea denuclearisation talks, Mr Thae said the only way to achieve the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free Korean peninsula, would need to be long-sighted and pushed by the country's youth.

“[There's] no way to denuclearise North Korea in a short term or even in the near future," he said.

“I think that only time can solve this problem, so only when the younger generation of North Korea stand up for change and bring the change in North Korea. That is the way to denuclearise North Korea.

“The current denuclearisation negotiations or peace talks with North Korea cannot reach the destination of denuclearisation.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supervises a rocket launch test . North Korea
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un supervises a rocket launch test.
AP

Born and raised in a core class family, Mr Thae admitted that his life in the North had been a privileged one. He had access to Western culture through books and movies from the age of 12 for the purpose of learning English. 

He was even given an opportunity to study in China and was allowed to take his family with him to European capitals such as London, Stockholm and Copenhagen as a diplomat.

The factors which triggered his defection were his anger towards the regime and his love for his children. 

The episode which triggered his defection occurred when 13 workers at a state-run restaurant in the Chinese city of Ningbo escaped to China, and then to South Korea in April 2016.

This mass defection resulted in Pyongyang abruptly ordering all university students of diplomats studying abroad to return to the North amid fears that they had been overly exposed to western influences.

This move angered Mr Thae and his family and eventually led to his decision to defect.

He said the biggest difference between him and his children was education.

Unlike himself who was exposed only to community teaching for decades, his sons had been given opportunities to experience and compare democratic and totalitarian education systems from a young age.

“My children were different because my sons entered a British primary school or high-school. So from young, they learned freedom, democracy and human rights,” he explained.

“As children of a diplomat they had to switch every three or four years from this kind of freedom, democratic and human rights [kind of] education to the most totalitarian, dictatorship education. So every three or four years it was a switch from heaven to hell. So that’s why they had a very good ability to compare the two systems.”

Dr Euan Graham, Executive Director of La Trobe Asia at La Trobe University, had worked as an analyst on affairs regarding the Korean peninsula at a UK Foreign Office in London and had been Mr Thae’s interlocutor during the time of his posting.

He told SBS Korean that he considered Mr Thae as a friend and believed he had a very important role to play in the future.

“He doesn’t shy away from saying difficult things about North Korea which aren’t always popular. But he says with an authority no one else can match because he comes from that system and he has access to the way that North Koreans think at a very high level,” he said.

“I think that lends credibility to his analysis that very few other analysts and the people in the debate cannot match. And he’s not shy of saying what he thinks so I think that’s important especially given the fact that reunification is becoming steadily less popular for ordinary South Koreans.”

Mr Thae Yong Ho(L) and Dr Euan Graham(R)
Mr Thae Yong-ho and Dr Euan Graham (SBS)
SBS Korean

Dr Jay Song, senior lecturer in Korean Studies and the University of Melbourne, who was a panel member at Mr Thae’s talking seminar, said the event was a huge success. 

“North Korea can be a very heavy subject but he touched on all these topics of politics, social issues as well as personal problems by adding humour and personal stories including the trigger of his defection and life in the South,” she said.

“He was able to lighten the weight of the subjects. So it was a great success.”  

 Thae Yong-ho, former North Korea's deputy ambassador to Britain, speaks during a press conference on during the North Korea-US summit in May 2018
Thae Yong-ho, former North Korea's deputy ambassador to Britain, speaks during a press conference on during the North Korea-US summit in May 2018
AAP

In the meantime, Mr Thae said he was enjoying a good quality of life and freedom in Seoul despite difficulties of having to adapt to the dialect and the highly developed technological environment.

“I’m very happy because I can do whatever I like and I can say whatever I like. I write the columns in newspapers,” he said.

“From time to time, I appear in TV shows to explain even, you know, I am very open to criticise the South Korean government’s policy on North Korea, but there is no intervention or interference by the South Korean government as well so I’m really enjoying this kind of good quality of freedom in South Korea.”

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