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North Korean defector shares his views on relations with the U.S.


Ask any just-arrived tourist in this town top 10 things they want to see, and the White House probably makes the list. Kim Hyun Woo, who just landed for his first ever visit to the U.S., is no different.

KIM HYUN WOO: (Through interpreter) When I've been, you know, dreaming of visiting U.S., there are some places I would - I really wanted to visit in the United States, in D.C. I wanted to visit the White House.

KELLY: But Mr. Kim, who you hear there and throughout this next conversation speaking through an interpreter - he's no ordinary tourist. He spent 17 years working for North Korean intelligence at the Ministry of State Security. He defected in 2014, lives today in South Korea. He now works at a government-funded think tank in Seoul. And it is the South Korean embassy here in Washington that has organized his visit. Kim Hyun Woo told me that while he's here, he hopes to strike up conversations with ordinary Americans on the street.

KIM: (Through interpreter) And my request is that people in the U.S. will not forget the people in North Korea but continue to remember them, pray for them and support them.

KELLY: Yesterday on the program, you heard Kim's views on life inside North Korea, which he continues to monitor from his post in Seoul - today, his views on relations with the U.S.

Your country and my country have had a very difficult relationship for many years. Do you see any path toward new diplomacy, new engagement between Washington and Pyongyang?

KIM: (Through interpreter) I do have hopes that there could be new changes in the diplomacy between North Korea and the United States.

KELLY: What gives you this hope?

KIM: (Through interpreter) The source of my hope is that even as we speak, the current both South Korean government and the U.S. government has - despite the situations going on, has been consistent in their stance that dialogue and diplomacy - the door to diplomacy and negotiations with North Korea without condition is always open. In that, I find hope that even though, obviously, right now the North Korean state has not been responsive to those calls for diplomacy, if South Korea and U.S. continues to open the door and make diplomatic outreach to North Korea, eventually there's going to be a shift in North Korea's response from passivity to more engagement. And that is the source of my hope.

I recognize that there is view that the possibility of successful negotiations and diplomacy between North Korea-U.S. or North Korea and South Korea is low as of now. And yet my hope is that with persistent efforts to continue works for diplomatic negotiations with North Korea, those persistency and patience would eventually bear fruits and would lead to a breakthrough in the diplomatic gridlock. One thing more concrete I want to add is, especially right now, when there is a diplomatic stalemate at the official channels, in order to create a breakthrough, what we need is a two-track diplomacy in which, if the official diplomatic channels is missing gridlock, we need to engage in widening opportunities for informal, indirect private channels of diplomacy. That should be happening in parallel with the official diplomatic channels.

KELLY: Is that part of what you're doing?

KIM: (Through interpreter) Unfortunately, I cannot be involved in informal channels because North Korea view me as a traitor. So they would not want to talk with me ever.

KELLY: What about nuclear weapons? The U.S. has tried and tried to get North Korea to walk away from its nuclear weapons program. Do you see any scenario in which they would?

KIM: (Through interpreter) My view is that it is very difficult for North Korea to agree and implement denuclearization. And the reason is because North Korea's current regime views denuclearization - so giving up the nuclear arsenal - as causing severe risk to their own regime stability and governance over the country.

KELLY: You just told me North Korea sees you as a traitor. Are you a traitor to North Korea? I wonder, when you use that word, what that means to you.

KIM: (Through interpreter) The question opens up a wound in my heart. From North Korea's regime's perspective, yes, I am a traitor. Yes. And from the perspective of my relatives in North Korea, I am a bad person. But, yes, for myself, I do not use those labels. I do not think those labels apply to me.

KELLY: Do you believe you'll ever go home?

KIM: (Through interpreter) That's my hope. I always have the hope of one day returning back to my hometown, my home city. But realistically, I know it's very difficult. And perhaps to quicken the day of my return, my ability to return back to North Korea, more so I need - we need support and attention from the United States. For me to one day return back to North Korea, I can only hope to rely on consistent commitment from South Korean government and from United States government.

KELLY: Is there any risk to you or to your family from talking to me, from giving open interviews?

KIM: (Through interpreter) Yes, it can be. And to be honest, before coming, yes, I did think about the risk to myself, my own safety and my family's safety before I decided to accept the interview. Yes, I did think about this.

KELLY: And I'll note we have agreed not to share certain details of Kim's story in order to protect his safety. Before Mr. Kim left our studios, I did have one last question.

You said you wanted to see the White House. Will you get to see the White House?

KIM: (Through interpreter) For this week, visiting inside White House - unlikely. So my more realistic, little, smaller hope is at least be able to walk in front of the White House, where the tourists are, and take a self photo. But for the future trips, I do hope to one day visit inside the White House.

KELLY: This is a very American thing to do - to take a selfie outside the White House. So you will be in good company.

KIM: Oh.

KELLY: You're giving me a thumbs up. There we go. Mr. Kim, thank you.

KIM: Thank you.

KELLY: Thank you.


KELLY: Kim Hyun Woo defected from North Korea in 2014 after serving 17 years in North Korean intelligence. This was his first interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOPPIPOLLA'S "MARCHEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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