The daughter of Jo Song Gil, a North Korean diplomat believed to have defected late last year, has been returned to Pyongyang and is now in the custody of DPRK authorities, the country’s former deputy ambassador to the UK said on Tuesday.
Reiterating claims made in South Korean media this week during a press conference in Seoul, Thae Yong-ho said he had over the past month sought to verify rumors than Jo’s daughter had been forcibly returned to the DPRK before she should safely defect.
“North Korea took the child back to the country immediately,” Thae told journalists, saying he had been able to confirm the story with his sources.
“I’ve confirmed that Jo Song Gil’s daughter was repatriated to North Korea and she is under the control of the North Korean authorities.”
Jo, who served as chargé d’affaires for the DPRK embassy in Rome, is believed to have defected in November last year.
Since the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) confirmed his defection last month, Jo’s whereabouts have remained unknown.
Thae said Jo likely faced the “difficult situation in which he is not able to make his whereabouts known to the public, or make public appearances due to fears over the personal safety of his daughter.”
The “level of punishment for children and families is entirely different” when a North Korean diplomat defects to South Korea rather than the U.S. or European countries, he added.
Last month saw a group of prominent North Korean escapees and activists, including Thae, openly call on the South Korean government to provide safe passage to Jo and his family should they come to Seoul.
Thae had also previous asked Jo to go public, saying that coming to South Korea was a “duty, not a choice” for high-profile defectors.
But the former DPRK diplomat on Tuesday said he would publicly withdraw that call, saying Jo’s circumstances made coming to the South too dangerous.
“As a person who arrived in South Korea with all my children, I would not be able to continue to demand my colleague Jo Song Gil come to South Korea as he is in such a difficult situation that his daughter is taken back to North Korea.”
In a wide-ranging press conference Tuesday — which comes just a week ahead of a planned DPRK-U.S. summit in Vietnam — Thae also said he believed North Korea’s marquee Wonsan-Kalma construction project is unlikely to be completed by its target completion date of October 10.
Thae told reporters he believed the project, which has become a domestic economic priority for Kim Jong Un, will be delayed for a second time.
“Because of the cash strain that North Korea is experiencing it is unlikely to be finished on time,” Thae said.
These economic difficulties, he continued, were motivating Pyongyang’s repeated calls for sanctions relief as a “corresponding measure” from the U.S., with the DPRK leadership reportedly convinced that restarting inter-Korean economic cooperation could provide these funds.
“I believe that Chairman Kim will be more focused on lifting the sanctions to revitalize the Kumgangsan area and the Kaesong Industrial Complex… to make sure he has enough cash flowing to complete that project on time,” he said.
North Korea is expecting these sanctions to be lifted following the upcoming summit in Hanoi, Thae said, in exchange for a commitment by Pyongyang to decommission the Yongbyon nuclear facility.
The former DPRK diplomat warned against such a deal, however, saying it would represent giving Pyongyang concessions “without any concrete action” and that it would underline the fact that last year’s Singapore Agreement had been a “major diplomatic mistake.”
Should the sanctions stay in place, he said, North Korea’s private markets will continue to blossom, while the country’s state-owned heavy industries will stagnate.
“If and when the sanctions are prolonged, what will happen is the industries that are manufacturing more of the fundamental sides of the North Korean economy will suffer, but individual-level private businesses, and more of a capitalistic side will flourish,” Thae argued.
He also reiterated his view that Kim is unlikely to relinquish his nuclear arsenal.
“Nuclear weapons are the culmination of everything that North Korea has, if you take out the nuclear weapons, what else do they have? Nothing,” he said. “There will be no money in the world that will convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.”
Is for this reason, Thae argued, that the Trump administration is shifting from a firm commitment to North Korea’s denuclearization to a policy of merely “disarmament.”
The former DPRK diplomat described this policy as the “Trump doctrine” — drawing a parallel with the “Nixon doctrine” of the 1970s which saw the U.S. normalize ties with China and tacitly accept its nuclear-armed status.
North Korea has, to this end, developed a diplomatic strategy “tailor-made” for Trump, Thae said, with the recent promotion of diplomat Kim Hyok Chol as Special Representative for U.S. Affairs of the State Affairs Commission (SAC) further underlining this point.
“By appointing Kim Hyok Chol in this very special position, the message that Chairman Kim would like to send to President Trump is that Kim Hyok Chol is engaged in working-level negotiations… and I listen to only him,” he said.
“The strategy behind this is to make sure that Trump does not listen to any of his advisers.”
But despite these apparent diplomatic strides, Thae said that Kim Jong Un’s regime remains in a precarious state – pointing to a shake-up last year in the DPRK military top brass as evidence of the DPRK leader’s insecurity.
“The country is at a crisis… several days ago, more specifically February 8th, there was a massive event celebrating the inauguration of the military, and we could see that the top three military personnel had been replaced within only one year,” he said.
“That demonstrates how unstable Kim Jong Un might feel within the North Korean regime.”
Additional reporting by Dagyum Ji
Featured Image: Parrocchia di Farra di Soligo