The former North Korean deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom told NBC’s Lester Holt that dictator Kim Jong Un is “desperate” and would launch nuclear ICBMs at the U.S. at the first provocation.
Thae Yong Ho, who defected last year, is thought to be one of the highest-ranking North Korean defectors in history. But it is unclear just how close he was to Kim’s inner circle and how much first-hand knowledge he has of North Korea’s weapons programs.
According to Thae, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is “desperate in maintaining his rule by relying on his [development of] nuclear weapons and ICBM.” He was using an acronym for intercontinental ballistic missiles — a long range rocket that in theory would be capable of hitting the U.S.
“Once he sees that there is any kind of sign of a tank or an imminent threat from America, then he would use his nuclear weapons with ICBM,” he added in an exclusive interview on Sunday.
Thae was living in London and serving as North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom when he and his family defected to South Korea and were announced to the world in August.
He was not directly involved in North Korea’s weapons program but believes his country “has reached a very significant level of nuclear development.”
North Korea is estimated to have upward of eight nuclear weapons but has not demonstrated the ability to attach them to a long-range rocket, an ICBM, capable of hitting the U.S.
Analysts are unsure exactly how close the regime is to achieving this aim, but a senior official told NBC News in January that his government was ready to test-fire an ICMB “at any time, at any place.”
Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told NBC News that American officials were particularly troubled by this latest threat.
“They have the nuclear capability — they’ve demonstrated that,” he said. “And then, where they’re going with the miniaturization of that, whether they can actually weaponize a missile, that’s what’s driving the current concern.”
Is it a coincidence that Thae’s analysis plays directly into our fears of Kim being an unbalanced dictator whose grip on power is uncertain and who would launch a nuclear strike without much provocation? A defector from such a closed, paranoid society might think he knows more than he actually does. Or, he may simply be currying favor with western governments by telling them what they want to hear.
What’s happening on the Korean Peninsula is extremely worrying.
President Donald Trump told the Financial Times newspaper on Monday that “something had to be done” about North Korea. This came after Defense Secretary James Mattis said the country “has got to be stopped” and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said military action was “on the table.”
“It does feel more dangerous — I’ll give you three reasons,” according to Adm. James Stavridis, an NBC News analyst and dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “One is [Kim’s] own precarious situation in command of the nation. Number two is the instability in South Korea. We’ve just seen the South Korean president indicted, arrested, and incarcerated.”
“And, number three, a new and more aggressive American foreign policy coming from Washington,” he added.
But Thae is not without his own agenda.
“If Kim Jong Un has nuclear weapons and ICBMs, he can do anything,” he said. “So, I think the world should be ready to deal with this kind of person.”
He added that “Kim Jong Un is a man who can do anything beyond the normal imagination” and that “the final and the real solution to the North Korean nuclear issue is to eliminate Kim Jong Un from the post.”
Whom and what do we believe? Prudence dictates we take Thae seriously. The fact that his analysis of Kim’s mindset confirms pretty much what we already believe is significant.
But North Korean missiles have proven to be extremely unreliable, with about one in three blowing up shortly after launch. And North Korea is nowhere near being capable of building a missile that can hit the U.S.. Their latest improvement — a modified sub-launched missile — could theoretically hit Japan, which is several thousand miles short of the west coast.
But miniaturizing a weapon and marrying it to a warhead is their biggest challenge. The kind of specialized technology it would take to succeed is beyond their abilities at this point. But Kim has shown that he will bankrupt his country and starve his people to build a nuclear weapon. You have to think he’ll go even farther to make that weapon a real deterrent.
The Trump administration appears watchful and wary. But, with the current level of tension in the entire region, it wouldn’t take much for a crisis on the peninsula to ignite a war in Asia.