[This year, North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests and launched more than 20 ballistic missiles, and it has openly vowed to develop the ability to hit the United States with a nuclear warhead.]
By Choe Sang-Hun
Thae Yong-ho Credit Yonhap/European Pressphoto Agency
SEOUL, South Korea — A senior North Korean official who defected to the South told reporters on Tuesday that the North viewed 2017 as the best time to advance its nuclear program because it could take advantage of leadership changes in the United States and South Korea.
The official, Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s No. 2 diplomat in London, is the most senior North Korean official to defect in nearly two decades. At a news conference with South Korean reporters — his first meeting with outside journalists since his defection in August — he cautioned that as a diplomat, he was not privy to the status of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Yet he said North Korea was also confident that China would not punish it too harshly for its nuclear program, out of fear that the North’s collapse would create a pro-American, unified Korea on its border.
“North Korea knows this weakness of China,” Mr. Thae said. “As long as Kim Jong-un is in power, North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons, even if it’s offered $1 trillion or $10 trillion in rewards.”
The foreign news media was not allowed into Mr. Thae’s 150-minute news conference in Seoul with local reporters. But a transcript revealed Mr. Thae’s thoughts on his home country and its leader, Mr. Kim.
He said Mr. Kim did not consider his nuclear weapons program a bargaining chip but rather sought to deal with the United States after being recognized as a nuclear power, a status Washington has pledged not to grant.
This year, North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests and launched more than 20 ballistic missiles, and it has openly vowed to develop the ability to hit the United States with a nuclear warhead.
President-elect Donald J. Trump has indicated that he was open to allowing Japan and South Korea to manufacture their own nuclear weapons to deter North Korea, an idea that drew a withering response from the Obama administration, which said the idea flouted decades of nonproliferation policy.
South Korea will hold a presidential election next year.
Mr. Thae, a career diplomat, served in Denmark and Sweden before he was assigned to the North Korean Embassy in London about 10 years ago. In London, he was spotted delivering speeches at far-left events, including meetings of the British Communist Party, where he would speak passionately in defense of North Korea.
On Tuesday, he spoke of frustration as a North Korean diplomat abroad.
He said that North Korea paid its ambassadors only $900 to $1,100 a month, making its diplomats desperate for an extra income through work outside the embassy. The diplomats live a communal life inside their embassy to save costs, he added.
But he said they enjoyed one luxury the elites back in the North could not: They had access to the internet and could read news from South Korea, including updates about the lives of North Korean defectors.
Mr. Thae said that back in the North, the totalitarian regime was so paranoid about outside information affecting its people that it kept surveillance on diplomats who had returned home for fear they might spread outside news, even though DVDs smuggled in from China have made South Korean movies and soap operas increasingly popular in the North.
Mr. Thae himself was an avid fan of South Korean soap operas.
South Korea has hailed his defection as a sign of loosening loyalty among the North Korean elite. The North called him “human scum” and said he had fled after embezzling state funds and sexually assaulting a minor.
Mr. Thae denied these accusations on Tuesday and said his disillusionment with Mr. Kim had deepened after the execution of many officials, including the leader’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, in an attempt to tighten his control through a reign of terror.
The North Korean government requires its diplomats to leave some of their family members back home, holding them as hostages against potential defections. Mr. Thae said he was lucky because he could defect to the South with his wife and two children.
North Korean diplomats are also required to monitor one another to thwart treason. But Mr. Thae said there were holes in the surveillance, although he declined to divulge details of how he had defected.
“It’s a human world, and it’s impossible to monitor someone constantly,” he said.