Life as a North Korean Elite | Former Ambassador Thae Yong-ho | China Uncensored

What is life like for a North Korean Elite?
Parties in Pyongyang?
Or a living nightmare?
Welcome to China Uncensored,
I’m Chris Chappell.
Ever wonder what life is like for members
of North Korea’s elite?
Well, I couldn’t get Kim Jong-Un to sit
down with me.
I mean, I’m no James Franco.
But I got the next best thing:
Thae Yong-ho.
He was North Korea’s deputy ambassador to
the United Kingdom.
Think about that—his job was to represent
a country
known for an insane despot who has convinced
to worship him as a god.
But notice I said *was*.
Because Thae Yong-ho defected in 2016.
And believe me, that’s not a job you can
easily retire from.
While we were at the Oslo Freedom Forum,
Shelley Zhang had a chance to sit down with
the former ambassador
to hear his strange tale.
Thank you for joining us ambassador
Thank you
So what were you doing?
What was your job in the North Korea Embassy?
I was the deputy ambassador for North Korea
Embassy in London
until the summer of 2016
So what did you do?
What were part of your duties as the deputy
Basically, I was in charge of public relations
between North Korea and Britain.
There is a small embassy of North Korea in
so that’s why basically,
I was in charge of all the relationships between
North Korea and UK,
like critical economic and cultural [inaudible]
So when you you were growing up in North Korea,
did you believe in the North Korea regime?
Of course.
You see, I was a true believer of North Korean
[inaudible] system,
and I thought, and I was taught, in school,
that North Korea is the only socialist paradise
in the world.
The only socialist paradise?
Yes that’s right,
and so that’s why I really truly believed
what I was taught and educated.
Do you remember what your first contact was
with the outside world?
I started it sometime in China, in Beijing,
but the time that I stayed in China
was also the period of Chinese communist,
the party rules,
so that’s why the mentality, philosophy, were
more or less same,
the China and … So, basically,
I had no doubt in communism or socialism,
until, I was firstly posted to Denmark as
a North Korean diplomat.
When I first arrived at Denmark, I saw quite
a new world,
because what I was taught in North Korea is
all the socialist system can deliver
social welfare system to its people,
but the welfare system established in Denmark
was much much better than what was already
in North Korea.
So, that made me to analyze more deeply about
the capitalist system,
and so, I started to analyze the new world
and I learned that because of that tax assistant
even the capitalist system can deliver
much much better welfare system for its people
than the socialist of the countries
and then later I started to doubt about
the human rights in the visualism.
How society can coordinate the different demands
of the people
through democratic way.
So, it was really a shock to me as a true
believer in communism.
So let’s go back for a minute to life in Pyongyang.
Were you a member of the elite there?
So what was life like there?
Do people who are in the elite have freedom,
or are they still monitored?
They are very much more monitored.
The more higher place, you go up,
the lesser freedom you have in North Korean
All the leaders of North Korea are heavily
and you have less freedoms while you may have
more privileges of power or economic benefit,
but in terms of freedom,
you have less freedom than the classless people
in North Korea.
So how would that manifest?
Like you would be able to have …
like live better material life,
but you wouldn’t be able to step out of line?
Yes, that’s right.
Everyone in North Korea
has a boundary in their mind,
so it is not possible to open your mind to
anybody in North Korea.
If you were detected,
as a man with a lot of dissatisfaction to
the society
then you would be the immediate target of
the arrest
and would be sent to prison,
or even prison camps.
So you can never really know …
let people know what you are thinking?
We have to be [inaudible] my colleagues’ school
served quite a long time in foreign countries,
they all kept their mouths shut.
Well that’s one thing I wanted to know, is
when you came to Denmark
and you saw that actually a democracy could
provide for its people,
wouldn’t other diplomats have the same experience?
They have the same experience,
but we never share our experiences.
I never ask or ever even question,
like what do you think about the capitalist
or [inaudible] welfare system.
We never ask that kind of things.
So even though people have gone outside of
North Korea
and seen that life is different than what
you were taught,
everybody still afraid to talk about it?
Nobody would … so it’s not hard to convince
to go back to North Korea?
North Korea is a kind of society where there
is not any honest communications between the
because people are not totally afraid of the
but they are afraid of each other,
because nobody knows who would inform to the
about his ideas ideas or thinking,
so everyone must keep silent what he really
So you wouldn’t have to convince anybody that
North Korea is better,
or people just don’t talk.
Don’t talk and don’t even raise any questions,
because everyone knows that once you raise
up these questions
or whatever then you would be immediate target
of the persecutions.
So that’s why, this is common knowledge,
everyone knows that in North Korea.
So that sounds like defecting is quite dangerous?
Of course it’s very dangerous.
To me, it’s not quite dangerous but for normal
North Koreans
it’s real dangerous,
because you can be easily shot dead by the
when you cross the rivers by China.
How did you decide to defect?
It’s a long story,
there’s not any kind of the triggering point
when or how,
but it’s a long plan and long thoughts.
So you had been thinking about it for a long
A long time.
How about your family?
Were you able to get them out?
They agreed when I initiated defect
and they appreciated my brave decisions to
Could you even talk to your family about this
idea, would that be…
Yes, I talked [inaudible] my ideas before
the real defection.
I heard that before you defected, the North
Korean regime
called you one of the best and brightest diplomats,
after you defected did they admit that that
So, what did they …
They said that I’m a criminal.
That’s why I defected the free world.
So they, all of the ambassadors,
[inaudible] North Korea views on those defectors.
So is all of your family out of North Korea
now then?
Well my wife and my two sons.
Do you have any family still there?
Yes, my brother, my sister,
and all my relatives are still in North Korea.
Do you know what happened to them?
There is not any telephone international telephone
so I am totally disconnected with my family
Is that difficult?
Sometimes it is difficult,
but no choice, no alternatives.

Were you afraid to defect?
I see that you travel with a bodyguard.
You’re right, yes.
Have there been attempts on your life?
It is absolutely clear to me that now
I am number one target of [inaudible] by North
Korean regime,
that’s why I am heavily protected by Southern
when I am in South Korea
and why when I go abroad then usually
the countries will host my visit,
will take the responsibility of the protection.
Are you the number one target because of your
rank, or-
Because of my rank and I am a very open critic
of North Korean system.
So it’s kind of defecting and then speaking
out about it?
Yes, that’s right.
Many of my colleagues with my label of ranking,
they’re silent,
and they don’t like to appear on the media,
so that’s why they don’t have this kind of
media appearance
or attending this kind of events,
but I’m a little different that’s why North
Korea regime,
I think hates me a lot.
Why do you do it then?
Because I think that just the waiting
for the collapse of North Korean system is
I think somebody should do something
and I should do something to bring up change.
If everyone is just waiting for the miracle
to happen,
the miracle may not take place.
I want to ask you a little bit about China
and North Korea?
What do you think about the Chinese regime’s
relationship with North Korea?
China now continues to support [inaudible]
China continues to [inaudible] all North Korean
caught in China,
so this kind of inhuman North Korean system
by [inaudible] regime
is only possible by the support of Chinese.
So I really do hope,
that one day China is also democratized if
becomes a free and democratic world,
actually it will contribute a lot to the peace
and freedom
and democracy of the world.
If China becomes free and democratic country,
I think the next day,
North Korea will become democratic and free
There’s no doubt about it.
You don’t think the North Korean regime could
survive without the Chinese regime?
So let’s talk a little bit about Chinese authorities
sending North Korean refugees back to North
Do you think this is something
they are ever going to stop doing?
I think China should stop doing,
because North Korean refugees in China
must be treated different from the other normal
Now refugee problem is really a one a big
for the current world,
but those refugees do not have any final destinations
to be honest,
but North Korean refugees are different,
because there is a South Korea
who is willing to accept all the refugees
from North Korea,
so if, China lets them on their way to South
it could be even beneficial for China’s wealth,
because of Chinese policy of repatriation
many North Korean man and ladies are in slave
in the human trafficking, sex slaves of all
these things,
so if Chinese just support them,
or just, give the way to continue their journey
to South Korea,
I think it could be beneficial for China’s
and China’s people, but the Chinese government
still thinks that the contribution of North
Korean government
is Chinese interest.
That’s why they try to support it by repatriation
these North Korean refugees to North Korea.
Let’s talk a little bit about what you are
doing now.
You say that you think that people need to
do something
about the North Korean regime.
So what are some of the things you are working
I’m going to educate the North Korean people
and North Korean elite through online systems.
Now there around around one hundred North
Koreans working overseas,
they have all of them have a smartphone,
so they have very easy access to YouTube and
That’s why I use this internet system to educate
to give them the basic concepts of freedom,
human rights, democracy,
so that, the change of their thinking will
take place step-by-step.
Not one day.
But, I think this kind of long process of
educating them,
would make some progress one day.
Do you think that they might get the courage
to defect
and leave the North Korean regime?
What about inside North Korea?
I think the only way to accelerate
the process of the North Korean regime’s collapse
is to let more and more North Korean people
defect the North Korean system.
That is the most effective and peaceful way
to bring the collapse of North Korean system.
What about people outside of North Korea?
Is there anything people can do?
People should unite to support
North Korean defectors’ journey to South Korea.
The world [inaudible] should unite together
to stop China’s government policy of repatriation
and all the [inaudible] on this human rights
should be united,
because whatever human rights issues of the
if we are all united, and talk each others
human rights case,
those totalitarian governments look each other,
so if one success of one country or one human
rights cases
can be very easily expand to make another
in other parts of the world.
So I think all the human rights,
the cases, are interrelated,
so that’s why … that is the reason why I’m
Thank you so much


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