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North Korean defector says even a limited attack by U.S. would trigger all-out war

As President Trump departs for a lengthy trip to Asia, how does North Korea view its weapons programs and the Trump administration's approach? Judy Woodruff gets insight from Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat and defector, about Kim Jong Un’s mindset, President Trump’s rhetoric, the dangers of military escalation and what American diplomacy should look like.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, President Trump departed today for a lengthy trip to Asia. At the top of the agenda will be coordinating pressure against North Korea.

    The regime of Kim Jong-un has made significant advances in its nuclear and missile programs. The core message of the president’s trip: We will not allow North Korea to have the capability to launch a nuclear-tipped missile that can hit the United States.

    So , how does North Korea view its weapons programs and the Trump administration’s approach?

    We turn to former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-Ho. He was once North Korea’s deputy chief of mission in London. He defected last year, and now lives in South Korea.

    Mr. Thae, thank you very much for joining us.

    You were telling us that you led a pretty privileged life as a diplomat working for the North Korean government. Why did you defect?

  • Thae Yong-ho:

    It’s really a complex reasons of my defection.

    First of all, I didn’t agree with Kim Jong-un’s desperate race of nuclear and ICBM programs, which can finally make North Korea totally destroyed. And, secondly, because of my future of my sons, I thought that, as a father, the best legacy I should leave for my son is to let them — freed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is your — we know that this is a regime that takes defectors very seriously. Are you and your family safe?

  • Thae Yong-ho: 

    Oh, at this moment, I’m not quite sure whether my family members or relatives are safe. I have one…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The ones who are still in North Korea?

  • Thae Yong-ho:

    Yes.

    I have one sister and a brother in North Korea. And, for propaganda work, last April, North Korea invited CNN team to have an interview with my brother and my sister. And, in that interview, they cursed me a lot.

    But, at that time, I was really happy to see their faces again, because I didn’t imagine that I could see them again in my life, after my defection.

  • Judy Woodruff: 

    So, as someone who worked in the diplomatic field for the North Korean government through many years, what can you tell us about the mind-set of Kim Jong-un?

  • Thae Yong-ho: 

    Oh, Kim Jong-un is not a madman. He is an intelligent guy, but with a merciless mind.

    So, the past five years of his rule in North Korea proved that he wants to destroy anything in his way, no matter whether it is a country or a human being. He has persecuted hundreds of senior leaders in North Korea in his five-years term, including his family members, like his uncle and his half-brother.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    His own half-brother.

    What do you understand to be his view of the United States? We have seen his nuclear buildup, the missile buildup. What is your sense of what he thinks he can accomplish when it comes to the United States?

  • Thae Yong-ho:

    Oh, he has a kind of illusion that, if he acquires these nuclear weapons and ICBMs, he could be able to compel Washington to pull U.S. troops out of South Korea, and once U.S. troops leave South Korea, then foreign investments would follow U.S. troops out of vehicle, and if that is the case, then the South Korean business also would leave.

    Then it can — he can stabilize the whole South Korean system with his nuclear weapons.

  • Judy Woodruff: 

    But we haven’t seen that happen, of course. And what we are seeing is this administration, the Trump administration, pursuing a very aggressive policy toward the North.

    What do you see as the effects of that on the North?

  • Thae Yong-ho:

    I think the — Kim Jong-un has been very desperate to develop its ICBM and nuclear.

    And he even sent a lot of rhetoric, warnings and provocations of nuclear tests and ICBM tests. But I think we should admit that some rhetoric by President Trump and the unpredictable character of President Trump actually worked to some extent to stop his desperate escalation of this conflict.

    For instance, when Kim Jong-un warned the possible tests around Guam, the American territory, then President Trump responded with fire and fury.

  • Judy Woodruff: 

    The comments, right.

  • Thae Yong-ho:

    And that kind of very strong response by President Trump actually stopped Kim Jong-un to have a test around Guam.

    That’s why he changed his direction of ICBM from Guam to Pacific Ocean over the Japanese territory.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you’re saying, to some extent, it’s had a positive effect on the North?

  • Thae Yong-ho: 

    Yes, I believe it’s so.

  • Judy Woodruff: 

    We know now from reporting that there are those in the Trump administration who have put forward the notion of a — the possibility of a limited strike, an attack against the North in order to punish the North and to keep it from developing its nuclear and missile program, in the belief that that could be effective.

    How do you think the North would respond?

  • Thae Yong-ho:

    I think even a limited strike, like kind of a surgical strike, by the U.S. can bring a full-scale conflict or war on Korean Peninsula, because all North Korean military have been trained to fire back anyway if one of their — or even a very small part of North Korea is attacked by the U.S.

    And given the fact that more than 10 million of South Korean population are living within 100 range of tens of thousands of North Korean artillery and missiles, I think that kind of immediate and automatic response from the North Korean military can create huge human loss on the South Korean side.

    And if that’s the case, then I think American and South Korean forces may retaliate in full scale. Then that’s why, you know, it will easily escalate into a full-scale war on Korean Peninsula, which would mean huge human sacrifice.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Huge, almost unthinkable.

    You have also talked to us, Mr. Thae, about what you think would be effective. You’re saying some of the tough talk from President Trump has been effective. But you have also said that there should be a better effort to communicate with the North, to reach out to the North. What do you mean by that?

  • Thae Yong-ho:

    I think we should engage and even try a dialogue with Kim Jong-un, and also we should engage to break the isolation of North Korean people.

    I think we can disseminate the more outside information to educate North Korean people, so that we can help North Korean people to make a change.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fascinating. Fascinating to see where this is going to lead.

    Thae Yong-Ho, we thank you so much for talking with us.

  • Thae Yong-ho:

    Thank you very much for this opportunity.

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