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Kim Jong-un’s daughter may accompany her father on a missile launch, but that doesn’t mean she will become North Korea’s future leader, says a man whose job was once to protect the hereditary regime.
Kim Hyun Woo used to work for North Korea’s top intelligence agency. He defected to South Korea in 2014 and is currently visiting the United States for the first time.
In an exclusive interview with NPR’s Mary-Louise Kelly, he provided insight into his reasons for fleeing the country, possible succession to power, and diplomacy with the United States amid mounting tensions over North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
During his 17 years in the Ministry of State Security (a career only possible for North Korean elites with credible social and familial backgrounds), Mr. Kim was responsible for analyzing intelligence data in various departments and at one time in overseas bureaus. worked.
The ministry’s job is to “track, identify and catch what the regime sees as hostile operatives and hostile activities within the state,” Kim explained.
And North Korean defectors say that seemingly mundane acts like watching South Korean dramas are considered “hostile” in North Korea and can lead to harsh consequences, including years in prison.
The ministry’s extensive operative network monitors North Korean citizens, including senior military and ruling party officials. He also manages political prison camps.
Because of its social control functions, the ministry plays an important role, especially during times of leadership change.
South Korean intelligence agencies have reported that dozens of senior North Korean officials were executed early in the regime of current leader Kim Jong Un. Among them was Jang Sung-taek, the uncle of Kim Jong-un, whose execution was ordered by the ministry during a special military trial in 2013.
The ministry’s enormous powers and proximity to power also meant it experienced turbulent changes during the transitional period when Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011. Former agent Hyun Woo Kim said existing leadership members of the organization are being persecuted by newly appointed officials.
Kim, who was stationed overseas at the time, feared that he too would fall victim to a power struggle. There he fled with his family and never returned to his homeland.
“Unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to my relatives,” Kim said.
Border closures and lack of information
Internal conflicts at the ministry forced Kim into exile, but his years at the ministry also provided him with the information he needed to travel safely to South Korea.
This experience is also used in my current work on North Korea research at the National Institute for Security and Strategic Studies, a think tank in Seoul affiliated with the National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s intelligence agency.
Given the very limited information available to and from North Korea, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, first-hand insight into North Korea’s political and social system from defectors like Mr. valuable.
A draconian border blockade imposed in January 2020 for both people and goods forced the deportation of a small number of international organizations and most of the diplomats, exacerbating the information gap.
In May 2022, North Korea acknowledged for the first time that a new coronavirus infection had occurred among its citizens. Three months later, it declared a “final victory” in “eradicating” the virus.
A total of about 4.7 million people reported having experienced a “fever” and recovered. But experts suspect the country lacks public health resources, such as test kits, to get a full picture of the pandemic’s impact.
Kim Hyun Woo believes ‘North Korea suffered damage’ [the] The pandemic is even more severe than in other countries, and fundamentally because North Korea’s medical infrastructure is sorely lacking. ”
He remembers that when the H1N1 flu pandemic hit the country in 2010, the country had no choice but to close its borders.
And the North Korean government cannot afford “full data transparency on the impact of the pandemic” and cannot risk political and social instability, Kim said.
So while the rest of the world has weathered the pandemic and neighbor South Korea lifted mandatory quarantine for its patients from June, North Korea remains under lockdown. But Mr Kim said goods started flowing through the border with China last year.
South Korean media reported last year that cross-border freight trains had resumed operations, albeit much less frequently than before the pandemic.
“For one example, last summer, specifically in June and July, we have data that shows that construction materials were shipped from China to North Korea,” Kim said of recent imports.
Part of the reason may be that building apartments in the capital, Pyongyang, is one of Kim Jong-un’s major construction projects aimed at improving the quality of life for North Koreans. In 2021, he pledged that over the next five years, he would build 10,000 new homes in the city each year.
The regime has pledged to Pyongyang’s elite as several high-profile projects, including Pyongyang’s new general hospital and Wonsan Karma’s sprawling seaside resort, have missed deadlines amid international sanctions. They seem to prefer apartments.
In November, Kim Jong-un’s daughter made her first public appearance after accompanying her father on a missile test.
The unusual exposure of a member of the Kim family, who is still a child, and the respectful treatment she received in the state media, is a sign that the regime is preparing her and the people for their successor as a fourth-generation leader. provoked speculation that
But there are doubts about the thinking of Kim Hyun-woo, who dedicated his life in North Korea to maintaining the regime.
“Based on what we know about the protocols and traditions behind North Korea’s leadership succession, there is no concrete evidence to claim that his daughter, Kim Joo Ae, will be the next leader,” he said. Stated.
He said naming such a young child as the legal heir would call into question the terms of the current leadership and destabilize the regime.
Still, Mr. Kim recognizes that North Korea has the potential to live up to expectations. “There are seemingly illogical and irrational decisions taking place in North Korean politics,” he said, adding that Chue’s successor was “a remote possibility, but I don’t intend to remove him immediately and completely.” added.
If that potential materializes, he believes it could indicate an emergency requiring an urgent transfer of power.
But for now, Kim Jong-un has continued to lead the country for more than a decade, despite occasional rumors about his health and the painful consequences of his nuclear pursuit.
A brief attempt at denuclearization talks with the United States ended without agreement at a summit with President Trump in Hanoi in 2019.
Since then, dialogue between the two countries has largely come to a halt. Rather, the two countries exchanged increasingly harsh rhetoric as North Korea stepped up its weapons development and armed provocations while the United States resumed large-scale joint exercises with South Korea and increased the frequency of dispatching strategic assets to the region. ing.
Kim Hyun-woo concedes that a diplomatic breakthrough is highly unlikely, but he is hopeful.
One reason is North Korea’s new foreign minister, Choe Sung-hee, who replaced Ri Sung-kwon last year. Unlike Mr. Ri, who is an expert in military negotiations, Mr. Choi is a career diplomat who has dealt with the United States for a long time.
Another reason is that the leaders of South Korea and the US continue to call for dialogue.
One of Chairman Kim’s recommendations to them was this: “Especially at a time when diplomacy is bogged down through official channels, what is needed to create a breakthrough is a two-pronged diplomacy… unofficial, indirect diplomacy. It’s about expanding opportunities.” It’s a private diplomatic channel. ”
“Unfortunately, North Korea sees me as a traitor and cannot engage in unofficial channels,” he said with a laugh.
When asked if he considered himself a traitor, he paused and said, “That question broke my heart.”
Although he doesn’t use that label for himself, he knows he’s exposed to the North Korean government. And possibly his family still in North Korea.
“I live in South Korea and enjoy the freedom I wanted, but in my heart I still feel sad for the relatives I had to leave behind,” he said.
He prays daily for their safety until they meet again.
Vincent Ni, Sarah Handel, and Gustavo Contreras contributed to this report.