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North Korea’s nuclear hopes have surged, defector says

Thae Yong-ho, formerly a top North Korean diplomat, prepared to meet with South Korean lawmakers last week.
Thae Yong-ho, formerly a top North Korean diplomat, prepared to meet with South Korean lawmakers last week.(Kim Hyun-tae/Yonhap/AP)

SEOUL, South Korea — A senior North Korean official who defected to the South told reporters on Tuesday that the North viewed 2017 as the best time to advance its nuclear program because it could take advantage of leadership changes in the United States and South Korea.

The official, Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s No. 2 diplomat in London, is the most senior North Korean official to defect in nearly two decades. At a news conference with South Korean reporters — his first meeting with outside journalists since his defection in August — he cautioned that as a diplomat, he was not privy to the status of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

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Yet he said North Korea was confident that China would not punish it too harshly for its nuclear program, out of fear that the North’s collapse would create a pro-American, unified Korea on China’s border.

“North Korea knows this weakness of China,” Thae said. “As long as Kim Jong Un is in power, North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons.”

The foreign news media was not allowed into Thae’s 150-minute news conference in Seoul with local reporters. But a transcript revealed Thae’s thoughts on his home country and its leader, Kim.

He said Kim did not consider his nuclear weapons program a bargaining chip but rather sought to deal with the United States after being recognized as a nuclear power, a status Washington has pledged not to grant.

This year, North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests and launched more than 20 ballistic missiles, and it has vowed to develop the ability to hit the United States with a nuclear warhead.

President-elect Donald Trump has indicated that he was open to allowing Japan and South Korea to manufacture their own nuclear weapons to deter North Korea, an idea that drew a withering response from the Obama administration, which said the idea flouted nonproliferation policy.

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South Korea will hold a presidential election next year.

Thae, a career diplomat, served in Denmark and Sweden before he was assigned to the North Korean Embassy in London about 10 years ago.