Thae Yong-ho, the senior-most North Korean official to defect to South Korea in decades, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill on Thursday. He told U.S. lawmakers that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is developing nuclear weapons to gain leverage for direct talks with the U.S. and get American troops to withdraw from South Korea. Kim believes that would in turn cause all foreign investors to pull out of South Korea, triggering a South Vietnam-style collapse. This preposterous scenario seems to be Kim's "roadmap."
Just a year ago, Thae was the No. 2 in the North Korean Embassy in London, so his comments on the workings of the North Korean leader's mind should not be taken lightly. And there is a modicum of truth in the fantasy. If the U.S. concludes that North Korea has a workable nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile, it could choose either to strike North Korean targets or hold direct talks. And if direct talks take place, Kim will certainly demand the pullout of U.S. troops from South Korea.
Just a couple of years ago, it was widely thought that North Korea's nuclear weapons programs aimed only to ensure the survival of the regime. This led to the misconception that guaranteeing the regime security would prompt Kim to abandon nuclear weapons and missile development. But no country can guarantee the survival of another regime, and Kim knows this very well -- he saw what happened to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi when he gave up his nuclear ambitions.
The biggest threat to Kim's hold on power is the thriving South Korean economy just south of the border. To his mind, he must destroy or defeat the South to guarantee his grip on power, and he will use his nukes for that purpose.
A nation's security entails preparing for the worst-case scenario. What is South Korea's strategy for such a situation? One White House official recently claimed he is being kept awake by fears of North Korean nuclear weapons, which highlights how much importance the U.S. attaches to the matter. But which South Korean government official is having any problems sleeping? North Korea is only waiting to launch its next provocation.