Thae Yong-ho, the former No. 2 diplomat at the North Korean Embassy in London, said Monday he decided to defect because of his growing disillusionment with the repressive regime.
Thae told the National Intelligence Service he "had come to understand South Korea's democracy and economic development by watching South Korean dramas and movies during his long stay in foreign countries," according to National Assembly Intelligence Committee chairman Lee Cheol-woo.
NIS officials told the committee they hope to finish debriefing Thae on Friday before letting him melt quietly into South Korean society.
Thae said he did not defect to South Korea in pursuit of personal gain but to "dedicate his life to reunification between two Koreas and liberate the North Korean people from repression and suffering," according to another committee member. NIS officials said Thae vowed to speak out about the true reality of North Korea even if that places his life at risk.
Thae also said the absence of a second-in-command in the North opens up the chance of reunification "if something happens to" leader Kim Jong-un. The officials quoted Thae as saying that what scares the regime most is that the elite could defect en masse in the event of political changes. Thae indicated that they would most likely flee to China, so Seoul should instead find ways of reassuring them that they can come to South Korea.
He said surveillance increases as an official rises up in the ranks, and their homes are commonly bugged. Diplomats overseas live together so they can keep an eye on each other. North Korean intelligence agents are always monitoring overseas missions, making it impossible for diplomats to express their true feelings even at home, he added.
Thae said Kim lacks close friends or longtime aides to get a firm grip on power because he spent his childhood in Switzerland. "This is why he imitates [nation founder] Kim Il-sung" even though the old man refused to see him because he disapproved of the younger Kim's mother.
Thae denied media reports that he had to leave his daughter behind, saying he has none and both his sons came with him. He plans to send them to South Korean universities. He also denied allegations by North Korea that he embezzled money, saying that he even took copies of all the financial reports and receipts from the embassy before defecting.
He denied rumors that fled with billions of won. The North Korean ambassador to the U.K. apparently earns a paltry US$1,100 a month and Thae made only $900. One source said, "North Korean diplomats can't support themselves on their salaries alone."
Thae was quoted as saying that North Korea's elite "shout praises [for the North Korean leader] by day, but watch South Korean TV at night and increasingly grow to admire the South."
He added that it is quite easy for North Koreans to get their hands on South Korean TV shows on stealth USB sticks made in China.