The former North Korean diplomat on life under the Kims — and how the world should counter the regime.
Tae Yong-ho says he was 14 years old when he first began to comprehend the true
His family’s first stroke of luck, he says, was his paternal grandfather siding with the Workers’ Party during the brutal Korean war of the early 1950s. Tae’s father was born in North Hamgyong province, just across the frozen border from China’s north-east, but as a member of the core class, coupled with brilliant academic abilities, he was able to live in Pyongyang first to study, and later to teach architecture. Tae smiles as he recalls his childhood encounters with Russian diplomats and their wives walking the streets of Pyongyang in the 1960s: “I watched those big noses, blue eyes, these Russians, every day. To me, foreigners weren’t so strange.”
Tae’s development of secret misgivings as a teenager in the 1970s remains instructive today. South Korea in December introduced new laws threatening jail time for human rights advocates who send information from the outside world — including movies, television dramas and music as well as more pointed political material — into North Korea. Moon Jae-in, the president and former human rights lawyer pursuing rapprochement with Kim Jong Un, hopes the move will help draw Kim back to the table for nuclear talks.
Despite a series of unverified rumours, the details of exactly how the day of Tae’s defection unfolded remain murky. He has not spoken publicly about it. On the final decision to risk everything and leave his post in London, Tae says he was spurred by an immovable realisation that the young dictator was not going to take the country in a new direction. The idea of leading his own sons back to life in Pyongyang after they had spent so much time in the west became unconscionable.