This is the second part of a two-part series by Andrei Lankov looking at some of the most interesting revelations from the memoirs of Thae Yong-ho, one of the highest-ranking North Korean diplomats to ever defect. The book, “Cypher of the third-floor secretariat,” can be purchased here.
For the last few weeks, the bestsellers list in South Korea has been dominated by a book by Thae Yong-ho, the high-level North Korea diplomat, once a deputy ambassador in Britain, whose defection in 2016 made headlines worldwide.
Such interest is unusual: contrary to what is typically assumed in the West, the average South Korean cares little about North Korea and is remarkably disinterested in what defectors and refugees can tell us about their country.
The success of Thae’s book, then, is remarkable – more so as the book is far from being sensationalist. One does not find anything about Kim Jong Un’s personal life, and even stories of regime brutality and corruption, while present, are not that prominent.
In essence, the book is best described as a high-quality diplomatic memoir, even though it also contains roughly a hundred pages (out of 500 total) dealing with Thae’s family and background. The tone of the book – highly informative and rich in detail, but also well-balanced and analytical – makes it one of the best examples of this genre. One can easily see a disappointed and embittered but intelligent and well-informed U.S. diplomat writing a similar text after their retirement.
The book is a goldmine for everyone interested in North Korean diplomacy and the country’s recent history, and its 500 pages are packed with information related to these subjects. Remarkably, Thae refuses to speculate on things he does not have first-hand knowledge of, and limits himself to things he knows directly.
To understand why Thae Yong-ho knows so much one must recall his CV. Born in 1962 to a rather humble family, he, then still a teenager, was one of few North Korean students selected to study foreign languages overseas in the 1970s.
The book is a goldmine for everyone interested in North Korean diplomacy and the country’s recent history
He graduated from a prestigious college, and embarked on a highly successful diplomatic carrier. In the 1990s he served in Scandinavia (Denmark and Sweden) and then made two tours of duty in London, in 2003-2008 and again in 2013-2016. He was then widely known as a rising star in the North Korean foreign policy bureaucracy, and some even saw him as a future deputy foreign minister or even higher.
In many regards, the tone of Thae’s memoirs differs greatly from what one would expect from a book written by a defecting official, and it is truly remarkable how favorably he describes most (indeed, nearly all) of the people with whom he worked over his long career.
For example, he writes with great sympathy about Ri Su Yong, who he knew since the days when Ri was an ambassador to Switzerland and something of a foster father to the teenage Kim Jong Un (Ri later became the foreign minister). He is described as a responsible and courageous man, sometimes ready to tell the leaders the bitter truth, albeit in the proper packaging. For example, Thae writes that it was Ri Su Yong who took the significant career risk by suggesting to Kim Jong Il that the country apply for foreign aid in the 1990s.
Ri Yong Ho, who replaced Ri Su Yong as foreign minister, is also described as hard-working, responsible, and eager to learn. Thae’s attitude to Kang Sok Ju, the long-time first vice foreign minister and a major power broker in the foreign ministry in the 1990s and early 2000s, is more ambivalent, but Kang still emerges as a skilled professional, and a man who knew how to protect his personnel from the wrath of the Kim family.
Thae even finds positive words for such peculiar types as the far leftists in the developed West who still remain enthusiastic admirers of the North Korean regime and true believers in the wonders of Stalinism.
Thae’s memoirs tell us a lot about the inner workings of the foreign ministry, the background of many prominent diplomats (do you want to know about the family of Choe Son Hui, aka ‘Madam Choe’? Read Thae Yong-ho), and the rules of operations of North Korea’s diplomatic bureaucracy.
In spite of his critical attitude toward the system, Thae still believes that North Korean diplomats are highly professional and, generally, some of the world’s best – an opinion I personally share (if in doubt, looked at what they achieved in Singapore on June 12).
He even outlines the reasons for such professionalism: both personal and national stakes are high for the North Korean diplomats, and these people are encouraged to specialize (little, if any, rotation exists).
I would add an additional reason which also emerges quite clearly from what Thae says: while in nearly all countries it is highly prestigious to be a diplomat, few nations would rival North Korea in terms to both the income (in comparison with the country’s average, of course) and prestige diplomats enjoy. It certainly helps.
It does not mean that the life of a North Korean diplomat is excessively privileged. Fear is ever present in a diplomat’s existence: the book is full of stories about Thae’s friends, classmates, and colleagues being purged, often simply as a result of some family association with a fallen heavy-weight (the North Korean top brass loves to send their scions to the foreign ministry).
It is clear that the fear of the consequences of an independent unauthorized action frequently – but by no means always – paralyze diplomats’ initiative. Still, the system works.
UPS AND DOWNS
Most of the book deals with successes and failures of Thae’s own long diplomatic career.
Thae represented North Korea overseas when the domestic situation was tough, and economic diplomacy, as well as the search for more economical ways of doing diplomacy, was important. With great pride, Thae tells the reader how he managed to secure a large shipment of food aid (in the rather unusual shape of quality Danish cheese) to the-then starving North Korea – a deed which gained him the favorable attention of Kim Jong Il himself.
With similar pride, he talks of how he managed to save a lot of money when looking for a new embassy building in London and found ways to purchase a cheap but still suitable building in a low-cost neighborhood of Ealing.
Of course, there are rather funny anecdotes which often reflect the dual nature of North Korean diplomacy, which is both ideological and pragmatic.
For example, Thae explains that one of the major tasks of DPRK embassies in the West is to arrange all kinds of “solidarity meetings” and other pro-Pyongyang events with the local far left groups. However, Pyongyang always demanded that portraits of King Jong Il and Kim Il Sung be prominently displayed at such gatherings of the faithful.
However, this was at times problematic: British communists, being stubborn and otherworldly idealists, refused to display such portraits prominently unless images of other communist saints – namely, Marx, Engels, and Lenin – were given equal prominence. This was not acceptable for Pyongyang since, presumably, those bearded foreigners could not be seen as equal to the two greatest men in world history.
So, embassy personnel found a creative way out of the situation. They purchased the necessary tools, and every time another “friendship event” took place they brought the portraits of the leaders and promptly hang them on the wall. Then, the necessary pictures were taken as a proof that events overseas were dominated by the likenesses of the “great men from Mount Paektu.”
Thae also describes at some length how his embassy managed to get rid of a poster at a London barbershop which used the image of Kim Jong Un to attract customers (with the caption ‘Bad Hair Day?’). The story which, incidentally, appread in British media, including the BBC, involved nebulous threats and blackmail, but the owner finally chose to remove the problematic posters, and this was seen as a success.
The memoirs have, however, many things which are far more important than small anecdotes. For example, Thae describes in great detail an abortive attempt to invite the Pope to Pyongyang in the early 1990s. This plan, initiated by Kim Il Sung, met determined, if secret, opposition from Kim Jong Il who quietly sabotaged it.
Thae also writes extensively about North Korea’s efforts in the 1990s to acquire formal recognition from Western countries, as well as about some scandals which put additional strains on relations between the North and Western governments – like the persistent involvement of its diplomats in smuggling, which from time to time led to massive scandals. One such scandal was the expulsion of North Korean diplomats from Sweden in 1996, when they were discovered to have been smuggling large quantities of cigarettes to Estonia.
Interestingly, Thae describes secret consultations with Israel in the 1990s in Sweden, where he was stationed at the time. Following instructions from Pyongyang, the North Korea embassy suggested to the Israelis a confidential agreement to restrict sales of North Korean missile technology to the Middle East. The North Koreans said they would refrain from selling such technology in the volatile region in exchange for large financial assistance from Israel.
Thae describes in great detail an abortive attempt to invite the Pope to Pyongyang in the early 1990s
The deal was seriously discussed, but did not go through, and Thae now sees the entire affair as part of a pressure campaign initiated by Kim Jong Il. He believes that late North Korean leader – whose diplomatic skills he evaluates highly – wanted to use hints of possible proliferation as a tool to squeeze more concessions from the United States on nuclear and missile matters.
Another interesting part of the book deals with a visit by Kim Jong Un’s older brother, Kim Jong Chol, to London in May 2015 to attend a live concert by Eric Clapton. Thae was personally responsible for arranging the visit and spent nearly three full days with the visiting prince.
True to style, Thae paints a very positive image of Jong Chol. He is depicted as a polite and modest young man with little interest in politics, bored when Thae was explaining to him the structure of the British parliament and the workings of its political system.
However, Kim Jong Chol’s passion for music is clear. His plane landed in London at 9 pm, and, instead of going to a luxury hotel they booked for him, he insisted on going to the HMV on Oxford Street (it was too late, of course, so he went there next day). Then Kim Jong Chol spent an entire day traveling to a remote countryside town where it was possible to buy a peculiar acoustic guitar he badly wanted.
Interestingly, Thae noted that Kim Jong Chol was not only a lover of music, but a good performer in his own right. In a music shop in London, he began to play guitar, and the owner was much impressed by his performance – to the point that he asked the strange Asian man whether he was a professional musician, and if so, why the owner was not aware of his name.
In many regards, Thae’s book demonstrates the power of contact to initiate small changes. Thae’s own doubts about the system began when, as a student in China, he encountered George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” and saw how his fellow students were critical of Mao Zedong.
He also discusses the impact of remarks by the then-soon-to-be-appointed British ambassador, who expressed his compassion towards the Pyongyang children herded into obligatory recitals for the Arirang Mass Games.
The ambassador said that he felt sorry for the children, whose health would undoubtedly suffer from spending a long time spent outside in the cold weather. The remarks, duly reported to Kim Jong Il, annoyed the North Korean leader, who ordered his officials to ignore the ambassador. However, the problematic rehearsals also stopped.
Equally interesting are stories about disabled North Koreans, who were subject to official discrimination until the 1980s. In 2012 a disabled North Korean athlete participated in the London Paralympics, and soon afterward the British capital hosted concerts by the DPRK musical Para-Ensemble. These events were not just for show or for winning the support of ever-credulous foreigners: attitudes towards disabled people began to change inside the North as well.
Thae’s book demonstrates the power of contact to initiate small changes
The book does not shy away from larger issues related to North Korean grand strategy. Thae Yong-ho clearly says that Kim Jong Un government will never surrender nuclear weapons.
He discusses the purges which followed the rise of Kim Jong Un (interestingly, he predicted the assassination of Kim Jong Nam), and says he believes that political terror is not compatible with economic reforms – a view this author does not share.
These are merely some randomly chosen stories and observations from Thae’s work – these can be found at more or less every page of this large book, one of the best ever written by a North Korean defector. Given it deals with many issues which are of great interest to the Western reader, one can only hope that it will be translated into English soon.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Guiparang