This is the first 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.
Books by defectors and refugees from North Korea do not sell well in the South. In spite of the professed belief in the glories of unification, the average South Korean does not normally care that much about the lives of their supposed “Northern brethren.”
It does not help that the “refugee issue” has become a partisan question: interest in refugees and their situation is firmly associated with South Korea’s political right, while the left, despite fancying themselves as the “protectors of the underdog,” would prefer to deal with these refugees as little as possible.
However, we saw a remarkable exception to this rule recently. A book authored by Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat, has remained at the top of the bestseller list for weeks. And it deserves this attention: it is well-written, deep and informative, and it provides a vision of North Korea which is different from the dominant discourse – or rather competing discourses – on the country (a vision, I should add, this author sympathizes with).
Thae’s defection made headlines, and rightly so: being a smart and articulate deputy head of the mission in London, he was seen as the rising star of North Korean diplomacy. Indeed, his 2016 defection drove Pyongyang crazy, and with good reason.
There are very good reasons why he is seen by the North Korean authorities as the most dangerous defector currently alive
A CUT ABOVE
If one had to express in few words what is special about Thae’s book, I would say that this is, above all, a remarkably balanced and unbiased text. Most books by defectors and refugees are too close to political pamphlets, concentrating on stories of suffering and cruelty and full of emotional pledges for revenge and justice.
Thae’s book, however, is free from eulogies and invectives. He writes about the North Korean system in a slightly detached way, describing how things are done but never going into a righteous frenzy of moralistic outrage.
This does not mean that the book is sympathetic towards the regime: while he never fails to point to positive features he sees in the system, there are very good reasons why he is seen by the North Korean authorities as the most dangerous defector currently alive.
The book has a lot of insider information which shows how far North Korea is from being the paradise on earth it claims to be – and this information is more persuasive as it is factual. However, it is the work of a cold-minded and rational observer, not the diatribe of a righteous idealist.
To an extent, presumably, such an unusually intelligent and balanced analysis reflects Thae’s own personality. It is remarkable to see how he tries to find something positive in virtually every person he has dealt with, to the point that nearly all his former colleagues, bosses, and professional contacts are presented in remarkably positive light in the book – an unusual feature for any memoir, and a defector’s memoirs in particular. However, it seems that his own family background played a role in forging his particular attitude towards North Korean life and politics.
Thae’s attitude can be described as deeply analytical, critical, and skeptical, but not overtly and unconditionally hostile. He does not like the system, he understands that it should be changed or removed, but he also understands that it is not run by a bunch of evil monsters, and he understands well where it comes from.
Speaking personally, this is quite similar to how this author, a former Soviet citizen, saw that system – Thae and I both came from families who believed they were, on balance, beneficiaries of the socialist sytem, and also supported many of its declared values.
To his family – his grandparents, to be more precise – the communist takeover of northern Korea brought manifold social advantages. They by no means became instant members of the North Korean elite, but the birth of communist states meant a significant improvement in lifestyle for his parents and grandparents, and especially, their social standing.
The first post-1945 generation of the Thaes moved from a precarious existence at the bottom of colonial-era society to the nationwide average; the second generation entered the solid middle or even upper middle class; the third generation – that is, Thae himself – became a part of the country’s top elite.
One can argue that the same generation-by-generation movement, first from the ‘‘bottom 25%’ to the comfortable median level, then from the median level to the ‘top 10%’ and, finally, to the ‘top 0.1%’ could also happen under a completely different regime. But such a statement is counterfactual and hence unprovable: nobody knows for sure what would happen in a non-Kim-run or non-communist Korea, while in reality the slow-motion rise of the Thae family was achieved under the Kim regime.
Little surprise, then, that they felt loyalty and gratitude, even if they saw and quietly admitted the regime’s serious shortcomings. I know this well: the history of my family under Communist rule in post-1917 Russia was somewhat similar to the story of the Thaes in post-1945 North Korea, even though we did not rise that fast or that high. It took decades for families like ours to realize that the entire model, which initially benefitted us and many people around us, had deep and incurable flaws.
Thae’s grandfather was a poor and illiterate farmer, who in his youth was involved with the labor movement under the Japanese colonial regime, and was even arrested and severely beaten by the colonial police for his activism. When the Russians came and the Soviet army implemented the land reform of 1946 (on paper done by the Koreans, of course), Thae’s grandfather received his first plot.
This made him an instant supporter of the new government, which he saw as the embodiment of the lifelong aspirations of poor farmers like him. Brave and determined, he was the first to join the Korean Workers’ Party in his native village. For the rest of his life, he remained an authority figure within his small rural community (but never took prominent positions within the formal power structure).
During the Korean war, Thae’s grandfather was one of the few village Party members who followed orders and fled the village when the UN forces were approaching, having been ordered to do so in order to join what was left of the communist forces somewhere near the Chinese border. In due time, this decision greatly increased the political capital of his family.
It is the work of a cold-minded and rational observer, not the diatribe of a righteous idealist.
It played a major role a decade later, in the late 1950s, when Thae’s father became the first youth in the village selected to enter a college in Pyongyang. His remarkable academic achievements played a role, but compared to his competitors he also had reasonably good revolutionary family credentials.
THE KIM IL SUNG YEARS
When you read Thae’s memoirs, you get an image of 1960s North Korea that is remarkably different from what we usually see in defectors’ writings, and he remembers the country of his childhood and early teenage years as, basically, a decent and good place to live.
It was a poor country and the state watched everybody carefully, but people still had a great deal of optimism and were ready to help one another – at least, this is how Thae remembers the 1960s (this is how my parents remember the same decade in Russia, too).
Thae’s father became a college teacher in Pyongyang. Even though he was eventually demoted – he was discovered to be related to a wartime defector to the South – he remained, by all accounts, a convinced supporter of the regime. Life seemingly confirmed his expectations: things were still tough, but were getting better. Thae recalls how new buildings appeared in their neighborhood, while in the remote village where his grandparents were living farmers began to move from the old thatched roof huts into much larger modern brick buildings.
Thae recalls a long conversation with his father which happened when his father found out that his son, as well as other children in their neighborhood, were envious of their neighbors – ethnic Koreans from Japan who had then recently moved to Pyongyang who lived in a luxurious house and even owned a Toyota.
Back then, his father explained to his son that envy is not only bad, but also unnecessary: in due time their country would grow to the level where every household would be able to afford a car. So, the father said, Thae’s major duty in life would be to work hard.
This doesn’t mean that Thae did not see bad things happening around him. An incident which occurred in the family of his primary school friend was especially telling. This friend was known to be good at Origami-style paper folding. However, it was somehow discovered by the authorities that the boy had used pictures of Kim Il Sung as a source of paper. The reaction was swift and brutal: the entire family of the preteen “criminal” were banished from Pyongyang and relocated to the countryside.
Thae also recalls how some relatives were banished from the capital after a seemingly trivial incident – the head of the family, a young promising mathematician with little interest in the real world, misspelt the name of Kim Il Sung’s birth village during a political knowledge test – this minor mistake led to the banishment of the entire family.
These incidents did not have much impact on Thae’s worldview. He continued with his education, and, due to the combination of academic achievement and good social background, he was selected for a foreign language middle school.
Remarkably, back then, his parents argued about what would be the best career choice for their oldest son. Thae’s father believed that the only acceptable choice would be the job of an engineer or scientist, but his more pragmatically-minded mother, a school teacher, held a different view.
She said: “nowadays, only cadres (kanbu) and diplomats live well, so he should go to study English.” Father gave in, and his mother’s decision launched Thae’s long and successful diplomatic career.
In the new school, Thae found himself in a privileged milieu: the names of his classmates sound like a veritable who’s who of the North Korean hereditary elite. Indeed, the 1970s was a time when North Korea’s “top one thousand families” began to realize that dealing with the outside world was the best way to ensure the material prosperity of the second generation and began to push their children towards foreign language studies, a sure gateway to careers in diplomacy, espionage, and/or foreign trade.
Remarkably, however, Thae discovered that, contrary to his earlier assumptions, the children of the top brass were not spoilt brats. They studied really hard – perhaps, even harder than children of the humble commoners like Thae. Incidentally, I remember my own surprise when in the early 1980s I made the same discovery once I found myself in somewhat similar, albeit a touch less elitist, environment in my university department.
When you read Thae’s memoirs, you get an image of the 1960s in North Korea that is remarkably different from what we usually see in defectors’ writings
ROUTE TO DIPLOMACY
Thae’s life then took a curious turn. In the mid-1970s, the government made the (completely sensible) decision that, given the decisive role of age in the ability to master languages, it would make sense to send teenagers to study foreign languages overseas. For this purpose, they selected about a dozen best students from the Thae’s school, and shipped the kids to China. Then, in China, all these people were officially documented as “family members” of North Korean diplomats stationed in Beijing.
It was a rather unusual (and also very North Korean) way to arrange studies overseas. It was done because at that time, the North Koreans had already fulfilled the quota of students to be sent to study in China and a covert operation was seen as necessary.
It was only a few years later that the DPRK side admitted to the Chinese that the North Koreans at Beijing schools were not actually members of the diplomats’ families but rather children from Pyongyang – often sons and daughters of the most powerful clans in the country.
Thae spent a few years in China, then was recalled to study in Pyongyang, then was shipped back to polish his skills in Beijing and finally embarked on the diplomatic career.
So, Thae’s biography, to a point, is a textbook story of meritocratic success, and the same could be said about the lives of many people around him. He – and millions like him – saw daily surveillance and hereditary privilege as something to be unhappy about, but these problems were not sufficiently large to prompt him to change his generally positive view of the system (and let’s not forget about loyalty to one’s tribe or nation which is – perhaps, unfortunately – one of the most basic human instincts).
Thae changed his mind eventually, but it is refreshing that he did not repeat a common fallacy and does not scold and castigate what he once used to uphold or, at least, accept.
One should bear in mind that most North Koreans are not “slaves waiting for liberation” – or, at the very least, this is not how they see themselves. It is true the system is exceptionally repressive, but it still generates a great deal of passive and not-so-passive support or acceptance, and its supporters are people whose concerns and logic should be understood.
Thae himself is no longer one of these “conditional loyalists,” but his book gives us a good chance to see how these people think and feel.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Youtube
This is the first 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.Books by defectors and refugees from North Korea do not sell well in the South. In spite of the professed
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.