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Former North Korean agent gives his first interview since defecting in 2014


I'm about to introduce you to a man who had never set foot on American soil before yesterday, never given an interview either. When Kim Hyun-woo stepped into our studios here in Washington to speak with me through an interpreter for more than an hour, he was doing something that in his past life would have gotten him killed.

KIM HYUN-WOO: (Through interpreter) For 17 years in North Korea, I worked for North Korean intelligence agency.

KELLY: You were a spy?

HYUN-WOO: (Through interpreter) My role was more about protecting the regime's security internally.

KELLY: Mr. Kim worked for North Korea's Ministry of State Security.

HYUN-WOO: (Through interpreter) Main task was not to send out agents abroad, but rather to track down, identify and catch what the regime views as hostile agents or hostile activities within the state.

KELLY: As you may have gathered from the fact that he's speaking now, Kim Hyun-woo defected in 2014. Today he lives in Seoul, South Korea. He got his kids out, his immediate family. But Kim's decision put his wider family still in North Korea in danger.

HYUN-WOO: (Through interpreter) Sadly, I do not know what happened to my relatives. And that's why when I'm in South Korea, every day - morning, daytime and evening - I pray earnestly that God will keep them safe in North Korea - all my cousins and relatives.

KELLY: Mr. Kim works now for the Institute for National Security Strategy. That's a state-funded think tank in Seoul. He is still tracking North Korea closely.

So I'm curious about so many things about life in North Korea. What do we know of the pandemic, of COVID, of how badly North Korea has been hit?

HYUN-WOO: (Through interpreter) I predict that North Korea suffered from pandemic even more severe than other countries fundamentally because North Korea's health care infrastructure is severely deficient. So there would have been inadequate proper responses in mitigating and containing the spread and the illness from the pandemic.

KELLY: Do we know for sure that there was spread because Pyongyang was saying there are no cases, no problem because we closed the borders?

HYUN-WOO: (Through interpreter) I question the credibility of North Korea's official state message that due to locking down the country, there was no spread of pandemic. It's because 13 years ago, in 2010, there was actually another case of spread of epidemic. In 2010 case and today's case, what we know is that because North Korean regime lacks proper resources to deal with pandemic, only realistic option, a measure they could take, is literally lock down the entire country. North Korea's lockdown measures, however, from the past case from 2010, we can extrapolate that it likely was insufficient in actually preventing the spread of epidemic. And yet the regime, obviously, to be transparent in full data of the impact of pandemic, could have caused political and social instability within the country. That is why I believe with confidence that North Korea regime has been intentional in minimizing broadcast information and coverage about the actual state of damage from the recent pandemic.

KELLY: Can you tell how tightly sealed the borders are now?

HYUN-WOO: (Through interpreter) First two years of COVID pandemic, the borders were heavily locked down and controlled. Starting in 2022, what we are seeing is that while human travel, so human interactions, are still strictly monitored and curtailed, there has been signs of revival of cargos passing between China and North Korea border. So in that sense, at least in terms of shipments of goods, yes, it seems for the past year there's been relaxation of the border control.

KELLY: What kind of goods are coming in?

HYUN-WOO: (Through interpreter) To give an example, so last summer, June and July specifically, construction materials have been shipped from China into North Korea. We speculate that North Korean higher-ups, so elites, they also need luxury goods. And we predict that these goods have also found the ways to be imported from overseas.

KELLY: Let me ask you about succession. We see photos of a girl, Kim Jong Un's daughter. Is she the heir apparent?

HYUN-WOO: (Through interpreter) Based on what we know about the protocols and the traditions behind North Korea's leadership succession, as of now, there is no concrete evidence for us to argue Kim Jong Un's daughter's going to be the next in line for North Korea's regime leadership succession as of now.

KELLY: But she keeps coming in pictures. We keep - he keeps appearing with her - seems deliberate.

HYUN-WOO: (Through interpreter) Kim Jong Un, the current leader, does consider Kim Ju Ae as his heir, the next in line to the succession of power. If that is truly his intention, it does come to risk for the current government to make the decision. The danger is if Kim Jong Un, the current leader, makes a public decision recognizing Kim Ju Ae, his daughter, as a leader too soon, it creates speculations on - currently he is only in his mid-30s, I believe, late 30s - so why is he so impatient to designate successor? It could lead to questions on health, for instance - that maybe the leader is not healthy and therefore the leader needs to pick his successor too quickly. And that's speculations that probably Kim Jong Un, the current leader, does not want to get entrapped in. What I have just explained is arguably a rational prediction of what leadership succession should look like in North Korea. However, even though logically I analyze it's unlikely for Kim Ju Ae to be recognized a leader, not yet at least, I'm also aware that seemingly unlogical (ph), unrational (ph) decisions have occurred in North Korean politics. So the possibility of Kim Ju Ae, as you've mentioned, as becoming recognized as a successor is a distinct possibility that I'm not going to completely dismiss out of hand.

KELLY: So who knows (laughter)? Who knows is the...

HYUN-WOO: (Through interpreter) If Kim Jong Un does make it official public decisions to recognize his daughter as successor, it could be a clue or sign that there might be certain new changes to his own physical or political health of a current leader. And therefore, leadership succession has become urgent for the regime. So that could be an indicator. However, even among North Korean analysts, no one can make concrete predictions on this way or that way. So even among ourselves, we weigh the possibilities and look for more signs.

KELLY: Kim Hyun-woo, until 2014, he held a senior post in North Korea's Ministry of State Security. This is his first interview. Tomorrow, part two, his view on his country's relations with the U.S. and whether he will ever be able to go home. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Gus Contreras
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.