Kim Jong Un's iron grip on the North Korean people is weakening, and an information campaign rooted in soap operas and dramas could help advance a civilian uprising, a prominent defector told a congressional panel Wednesday.
"Great and unexpected changes are taking place within North Korea," Thae Yong-ho, a former diplomat in North Korea's Embassy in London, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
In Thae's view, free markets are increasingly popular. The state welfare system has collapsed under stiff sanctions, making civil servants and military officers dependent on bribes and embezzlement. State propaganda is shunned as more people watch South Korean television programs, forcing the government to allow the sale of DVDs of Soviet-era films and even American animation like Tom and Jerry, "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast."
"The changes make it increasingly possible to think of a civilian uprising in North Korea as more people are gradually informed of the reality of living conditions," he said. "The North Korean government will either have to change and adapt in positive ways for its citizens, or face the consequences of their escalating dissatisfaction," said Thae, the highest-ranking defector in two decades.
When Thae was a member of North Korea's elite as deputy ambassador to Britain, his appearance in Congress would have been unthinkable. But last year, he took his family and defected to South Korea so his sons would not have to follow in his footsteps as a "modern-day slave" to a despotic regime.
Since then, he has repeatedly told South Korean intelligence officials, think tank academics and journalists that the regime in Pyongyang is inching closer to collapse. He now calls it the "worst system in human history" and compares its human rights abuses to crimes committed by the Nazis.
In his first visit to the United States, Thae told lawmakers that he thinks all options should be exhausted to forestall the regime's nuclear weapons ambitions before using military force, as President Trump has threatened. Thae said Kim believes he needs a nuclear arsenal to "blackmail" the United States into abandoning the Korean Peninsula, which would lead to foreign investment flight and the crumbling of the South Korean economy.
"Before any military action is taken, I think it is necessary to meet Kim Jong Un at least once to understand his thinking and to try to convince him that he would be destroyed if he continues his current direction," he said.
Thae urged Congress to maintain tough sanctions and pressure countries such as China to further isolate it by cutting off most trade with its biggest partner. He predicted that if Washington could convince Beijing not to repatriate North Korean defectors but allow them safe passage en route to Seoul, it would cause a mass exodus.
"If China opened routes for defectors to go to South Korea, I think the North Korean system would collapse in a short span of time," he said.
But his most intriguing proposal is that Washington spend more money to finance television programming extolling the virtues of freedom, democracy and human rights.
"We cannot change the policy of terror of the Kim Jong Un regime," he said. "But we can educate the North Korean population to stand up by disseminating outside information.
"The U.S. is spending billions of dollars to cope with the military threat," he added. "And yet how much does the U.S. spend each year on information activities involving North Korea? . . . Unfortunately, it may be a tiny fraction."
Thae said programming tailor-made to North Korean audiences would help change the mind set in a country where children bow to portraits of Kim Jong Un, and thank him for their daily milk and apples during the harvest season.
"The regime established stupid brainwashing that depicted Kim Jong Un as the god," he said. "We should try to concentrate our efforts to educate people that Kim Jong Un is not a god. He is just a normal human being. We should touch the Achilles' heel of Kim Jong Un."