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A former North Korean operative gives his first interview since defecting

A North Korean soldier looks across the Yalu river near Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong in April 2017.
Johannes Eisele
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AFP via Getty Images
A North Korean soldier looks across the Yalu river near Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong in April 2017.

Kim Jong Un's daughter may accompany her father to missile launches, but that doesn't mean she is North Korea's future leader, says a man whose job was once to protect the hereditary regime.

Kim Hyun-woo used to work for North Korea's top intelligence agency. He defected to South Korea in 2014 and is now on his first-ever visit to the United States.

In an exclusive interview with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, he shared his insights into why he fled the country, possible succession scenarios in the regime, and diplomacy with the U.S. amid mounting tension over North Korea's nuclear capabilities.

During his 17 years at the Ministry of State Security – a career possible only for elite North Koreans with credible social and familial background – Kim served in various divisions, analyzing intelligence data and at one point working at an overseas branch.

The ministry's job, Kim explained, is to "track down, identify and catch what the regime views as hostile agents or hostile activities within the state."

And in North Korea, acts as seemingly mundane as watching a South Korean drama can be considered "hostile" and lead to severe consequences like several years in prison, according to defectors' testimonies.

The ministry's extensive network of agents surveils North Korean people, including high-ranking officials of the military and the ruling party. It is also involved in running political prison camps.

Because of its social control functions, the ministry plays an important role, especially during leadership transitions.

This undated handout picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency in April 2022 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as he observes the test-fire of a new-type tactical guided weapon in North Korea.
STR / KCNA VIA KNS/AFP via Getty Image
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KCNA VIA KNS/AFP via Getty Image
This undated handout picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency in April 2022 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as he observes the test-fire of a new-type tactical guided weapon in North Korea.

The South Korean intelligence agency reported that dozens of senior North Korean officials were executed in the early years of the current leader Kim Jong Un's regime. Among them was Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un's uncle, to whom the ministry ordered execution in a special military trial in 2013.

The ministry's immense authority and proximity to power also meant that during the transitional period when Kim Jong Un rose to power in 2011, it experienced turbulent shifts. Former agent Kim Hyun-woo said existing leadership members of the organization were persecuted by newly appointed officials.

Kim feared that he, too, would fall victim to the power struggle, even as he was posted abroad at the time. So he fled with his family and has never returned to his home country.

"Sadly, I do not know what happened to my relatives," Kim said.

Closed borders and a lack of information

Although the ministry's internal conflict drove Kim to defect, the years he spent there also provided him with the information he needed to safely make his way to South Korea.

The experience also informs his current work of researching North Korea at the Institute for National Security Strategy, a Seoul think tank affiliated with the South Korean spy agency, National Intelligence Service.

Firsthand insights into North Korea's political and social system from defectors like Kim are valuable, as information flowing into and out of the country is highly limited, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Strict border lockdowns, imposed on both people and goods in January 2020, forced most of the few international organizations and foreign diplomats to leave, aggravating the information deficiency even further.

In May 2022, North Korea admitted a breakout of COVID-19 among its people for the first time. Three months later, it declared a "final victory" in "exterminating" the virus.

It reported that a total of about 4.7 million people had "experienced fever" and recovered. But experts suspect the country doesn't have public health resources like test kits to even understand the full scope of the pandemic's impact.

Kim Hyun-woo believes "North Korea suffered from [the] pandemic even more severely than other countries, fundamentally because North Korea's healthcare infrastructure is severely deficient."

He remembers that the country had no better option than to close its borders in 2010 when the H1N1 flu pandemic arrived there.

Employees spray disinfectant and wipe surfaces as part of preventative measures against the coronavirus at the Pyongyang Children's Department Store in March 2022.
Kim Won Jin / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Employees spray disinfectant and wipe surfaces as part of preventative measures against the coronavirus at the Pyongyang Children's Department Store in March 2022.

And the North Korean government, Kim said, cannot afford "to be transparent in full data of the impact of the pandemic" and risk political and social instability.

So as the rest of the world moves beyond the pandemic, and with its neighbor South Korea lifting mandatory isolation for patients starting June, North Korea still remains sealed off. Kim said, however, goods had started to make their way in through the border with China last year.

South Korean media reported last year that cross-border cargo trains resumed operations, although at a much lower frequency than before the pandemic.

"To give an example," Kim said about recent imports, "last summer – June and July specifically – we have data that shows construction materials have been shipped from China into North Korea."

Part of the reason may be that building apartments in the capital Pyongyang is one of Kim Jong Un's key construction projects aimed at improving North Korean people's quality of life. In 2021, he vowed to build 10,000 new homes in the city every year for the following five years.

With several high-profile projects like a new general hospital in Pyongyang or an expansive coastal resort in Wonsan-Kalma failing to meet their deadline for completion amid international sanctions, the regime appears to be prioritizing apartments it promised to its elite citizens of Pyongyang.

A question of succession

In November, Kim Jong Un's daughter appeared in public for the first time, accompanying her father to a missile test launch.

The unusual disclosure of a Kim family member who is still a child, and the deferential treatment she received in the state media, stoked speculations that the regime is preparing her and the nation for her succession as the fourth-generation leader.

People watch a television screen showing a news broadcast with an image of Kim Jong Un and his daughter attending a military parade held in Pyongyang in February.
Jung Yeon-Je / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
People watch a television screen showing a news broadcast with an image of Kim Jong Un and his daughter attending a military parade held in Pyongyang in February.

But Kim Hyun-woo, whose life in North Korea was devoted to upholding the regime, is doubtful.

"Based on what we know about the protocols and the traditions behind North Korea's leadership succession, there is no concrete evidence for us to argue Kim Ju Ae, the daughter, is going to be the next in line," he said.

To designate such a young child as the heir apparent would raise questions about the current leader's conditions and destabilize the regime, he said.

Yet, Kim recognizes North Korea can buck expectations. "Seemingly illogical, irrational decisions have occurred in North Korean politics," he said, adding that Ju Ae's succession "is a distant possibility that I'm not going to completely dismiss out of hand."

If that possibility is realized, he thinks it could indicate an emergency situation requiring an urgent handing down of power.

But for now, Kim Jong Un has been leading the country for more than a decade, despite occasional rumors about health and biting consequences of his pursuit of nuclear development.

A brief attempt at denuclearization negotiations with the United States ended when his summit meeting with Trump in Hanoi in 2019 produced no deal.

Donald Trump shakes hands with Kim Jong Un before a meeting in Hanoi in February 2019.
Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Donald Trump shakes hands with Kim Jong Un before a meeting in Hanoi in February 2019.

Dialogue has mostly ceased between the two countries since. Instead, the two are exchanging increasingly harsh rhetoric as Pyongyang steps up weapons development and armed provocations, while Washington resumes large-scale joint exercises with Seoul and dispatches strategic assets to the region more frequently.

The possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough seems very low, Kim Hyun-woo admits, but he is hopeful.

One reason is North Korea's new foreign minister Choe Son Hui, who replaced Ri Son Gwon last year. Unlike Ri, who is a military negotiation expert, Choe is a career diplomat who has long dealt with the U.S.

Another reason is the continued call for talks from both the South Korean and U.S. leaders.

One recommendation Kim has for them is this: "Especially right now, when there is a diplomatic stalemate at the official channels, in order to create a breakthrough, what we need is a two-track diplomacy ... widening opportunities for informal, indirect private channels of diplomacy."

"Unfortunately, I cannot be involved in informal channels because North Korea views me as a traitor," he said with a chuckle.

When asked if he thinks of himself as a traitor, he paused for a while and said: "That question opens up a wound in my heart."

He doesn't use that label on himself, but he knows he is in the eyes of the North Korean government. And possibly to his family members still in North Korea.

"Even though I am living in South Korea and enjoying the freedom I've wanted, in my heart I still feel sadness for the relatives I had to leave behind," he said.

He prays daily for their safety until the time they reunite.

Vincent Ni, Sarah Handel and Gustavo Contreras contributed to this report. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Se Eun Gong
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.