President Donald Trump often sounds more desperate for a deal than North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The latest example came on Monday, when Trump insisted that North Korea had not tested ballistic missiles earlier this month — contradicting not only his own national security adviser but also the prime minister of Japan.
After some speculation about Kim’s motivation, Trump doubled down on an earlier tweet. “All I know is that there have been no nuclear tests,” he said. “There have been no ballistic missiles going out, no long-range missiles going out.”
There are good reasons to worry about this. It’s indefensible for Trump to tweet out Kim’s dim view of former Vice President Joe Biden’s intelligence. And it almost goes without saying that Shinzo Abe and John Bolton are in a better position than Trump to assess North Korea’s missile tests.
That said, one unlikely source says there may be a method to Trump’s madness when it comes to Kim. His name is Thae Yong Ho, and he is one of the highest ranking North Korean officials ever to defect to the West.
In an interview at the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual conference for dissidents and human-rights advocates in the Norwegian capital, Thae offered a possible rationale for Trump’s approach. “Trump still keeps the economic sanctions against Kim,” he said. “On the other hand, he is flattering him so he does not break out of the negotiations.” If North Korea tests nuclear or long-range ballistic missiles, Thae said, “Trump would have justification to use force. Kim knows this, and this is why he won’t do it.”
Coming from Thae, it’s a surprising view. When Thae defected in 2016 with his family, he became a hunted man. The South Korean government provides him with 24-hour protection, even when he travels outside of Seoul. “The world has seen what Kim has done to his half-brother,” said Thae, who was the second-ranking diplomat at his country’s embassy in London. “They can do anything to keep me silent.”
And while Thae said he understood Trump’s approach to managing Kim, he also said Kim has had some success in managing Trump. The terms initially agreed to in 2018 at their first summit in Singapore, he said, were too favorable to North Korea. “There is no clear timetable in the Singapore agreement for when the denuclearization would be completed,” he said.
Thae was also doubtful about one of the pillars of Trump’s strategy with Kim: offering North Korea economic prosperity as an incentive to dismantle its nuclear program. The regime’s elites know better, he said, but most North Koreans are brainwashed into believing Kim is a god. They will learn the truth if North Korea ever opens itself up to the rest of the world.
“Kim’s family has committed so many crimes in its history, for 70 years, for three generations, they have killed so many people,” he said. “Once justice is brought, there is no way for his family to be pardoned or forgiven by his people.”
For now, Thae said, a popular democratic revolution is not realistic. “It will probably take at least 20 years,” he said. Until then, the best strategy is for the free world to help North Koreans learn about the outside world. Initiatives aimed at doing so, such as smuggling into the country portable DVD players pre-programmed with South Korean soap operas, have been quietly gaining steam for years.
It’s not as immediate and direct as some other options. But it’s preferable to a bargain with a tyrant known for breaking his word — even if Trump is the only one who doesn’t acknowledge it.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.