North Korean defector tells Lester Holt Kim Jong Un would use nukes

SEOUL, South Korea — A senior North Korean defector has told NBC News that the country's "desperate" dictator is prepared to use nuclear weapons to strike the United States and its allies.

Thae Yong Ho is the most high profile North Korean defector in two decades, meaning he is able to give a rare insight into the secretive, authoritarian regime.

According to Thae, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is "desperate in maintaining his rule by relying on his [development of] nuclear weapons and ICBM." He was using an acronym for intercontinental ballistic missiles — a long range rocket that in theory would be capable of hitting the U.S.

"Once he sees that there is any kind of sign of a tank or an imminent threat from America, then he would use his nuclear weapons with ICBM," he added in an exclusive interview on Sunday.

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A missile is carried by a military vehicle during a parade to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang July 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Lee (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY ANNIVERSARY)
Engineers check the base of Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)
A North Korean scientist looks at a monitor showing the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, at the satellite control centre of the Korean Committee of Space Technology on the outskirts of Pyongyang April 11, 2012. North Korea said on Wednesday it was injecting fuel into a long-range rocket ahead of a launch condemned by its neighbours and the West. The launch is set to take place between Thursday and next Monday and has prompted neighbours such as the Philippines to re-route their air traffic. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A soldier stands guard in front of the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
North Korean soldiers salute in a military vehicle carrying a missile during a parade to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang July 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Lee (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY ANNIVERSARY)
Ko Yun-hwa (L), Administrator of Korea Meteorological Administration, points at where seismic waves observed in South Korea came from, during a media briefing at Korea Meteorological Administration in Seoul, South Korea, January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A sales assistant watches TV sets broadcasting a news report on North Korea's nuclear test, in Seoul, January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Workers construct a new nuclear reactor in the North Korean village of Kumho in this file photo taken August 7, 2002. The United States urged North Korea December 21, 2002 not to restart a nuclear reactor suspected of being used to make weapons-grade plutonium. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that North Korea had disabled surveillance devices the agency had placed at the five-megawatt Nyongbyong reactor. REUTERS/Lee Jae-won/File Photo LJW/RCS/AA
A passenger walks past a television report on North Korea's nuclear test at a railway station in Seoul February 12, 2013. North Korea conducted a nuclear test on Tuesday, South Korea's defence ministry said, after seismic activity measuring 4.9 magnitude was registered by the U.S. Geological Survey. The epicentre of the seismic activity, which was only one km below the Earth's surface, was close to the North's known nuclear test site. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji (SOUTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A scientist stands beside the Kwangmyongsong-3 application satellite, to be put onto the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (NORTH KOREA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)
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Thae was living in London and serving as North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom when he and his family defected to South Korea and were announced the world in August.

He was not directly involved in North Korea's weapons program but believes his country "has reached a very significant level of nuclear development."

North Korea is estimated to have upward of eight nuclear weapons but has not demonstrated the ability to attach them to a long-range rocket, an ICBM, capable of hitting the U.S.

Analysts are unsure exactly how close the regime is to achieving this aim, but a senior official told NBC News in January that his government was ready to test-fire an ICMB "at any time, at any place."

Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told NBC News that American officials were particularly troubled by this latest threat.

"They have the nuclear capability — they've demonstrated that," he said. "And then, where they're going with the miniaturization of that, whether they can actually weaponize a missile, that's what's driving the current concern."

Thae's interview with NBC News comes against a backdrop of rising tensions surrounding North Korea, which has significantly increased its missile and nuclear tests under Kim's rule.

President Donald Trump told the Financial Times newspaper on Monday that "something had to be done" about North Korea. This came after Defense Secretary James Mattis said the country "has got to be stopped" and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said military action was "on the table."

"It does feel more dangerous — I'll give you three reasons," according to Adm. James Stavridis, an NBC News analyst and dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at at Tufts University in Massachusetts. "One is [Kim's] own precarious situation in command of the nation. Number two is the instability in South Korea. We've just seen the South Korean president indicted, arrested, and incarcerated."

"And, number three, a new and more aggressive American foreign policy coming from Washington," he added.

Some analysts have warned that military action against the country might be very difficult and even disastrous. An invasion could risk a retaliatory strike against U.S. allies of Japan and South Korea, whose capital, Seoul, is just 50 miles from the border.

Nonetheless, Thae warned America and its allies to be prepared.

"If Kim Jong Un has nuclear weapons and ICBMs, he can do anything," he said. "So, I think the world should be ready to deal with this kind of person."

He added that "Kim Jong Un is a man who can do anything beyond the normal imagination" and that "the final and the real solution to the North Korean nuclear issue is to eliminate Kim Jong Un from the post."

RELATED: 15 facts about Kim Jong Un

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1) Kim Jong Un was born on January 8 -- 1982, 1983, or 1984.

His parents were future North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and his consort, Ko Young Hee. He had an older brother named Kim Jong Chul and would later have a younger sister named Kim Yo Jong.

(Photo: DPRK propaganda via http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Korea/NG14Dg02.html)

2) Jong Un -- here with his mother -- lived at home as a child.

During this period, North Korea was ruled by "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung. While Jong Il was the heir apparent, Jong Un's path to command was far less certain.

(DPRK propaganda via http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Korea/NG14Dg02.html)

3) Then it was off to Switzerland to attend boarding school.

Called "Pak Un" and described as the son of an employee of the North Korean embassy, Jong Un is thought to have attended an English-language international school in Gümligen near Bern.

4) Jong Un loved basketball and idolized Michael Jordan.

The young Korean reportedly had posters of Jordan all over his walls during his Swiss school days. Although Jong Un was overweight and only 5-6, he was a decent basketball player.

(Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)

5) After school in Switzerland, he returned home for military schooling.

Upon his return to North Korea, Jong Un attended Kim Il Sung Military University with his older brother. Some reports say they started to attend their father's military field inspections around 2007.

(Photo by Liu Xingzhe/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

6) Jong Un has a theme song known as "Footsteps."

"Footsteps" looks and sounds like a propaganda song from the Soviet Union.

7) Many North Koreans see Jong Un as a youthful version of "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung.

Kim bears a clear resemblance to his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, in appearance, haircut, and mannerisms.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

8) After his father died, Jong Un was quickly declared "Supreme Leader" of North Korea.

(AFP/Getty Images)

9. Some originally believed that Jong Un's aunt and uncle were actually calling the shots.

(Reuters TV / Reuters)

11. He's married to a former cheerleader and may have two kids.

(KCNA KCNA / Reuters)

10) But at the end of December 2013, Jong Un had his uncle and his uncle's family executed, apparently in a bid to stop a coup against his rule.

12) Jong Un lived out a childhood fantasy when former Chicago Bulls star Dennis Rodman visited.

Everyone in the family is apparently a huge Chicago Bulls fans.

(Photo courtesy of VICE)

13) But recently, things haven't been going so well.

In 2013 he was reportedly the target of an assassination attempt. South Korean intelligence believes the young leader was targeted by "disgruntled people inside the North" after he demoted a four-star general, which resulted in a power struggle.

(Photo courtesy: DPRK)

14. Jong Un has continued to be belligerent with South Korea and the West throughout his rule in hopes of bolstering his authority.

(KCNA KCNA / Reuters)

15. Jong Un's belligerence reached a peak in 2016.

(KCNA KCNA / Reuters)

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Kim came to power in 2012 and has defined his strongman premiership by the pursuit of a nuclear weapon that can hit the U.S. He has conducted more missile tests than in the rest of the country's history combined, and three of North Korea's five nuclear tests came under his watch.

According to Thae, Kim is obsessed with obtaining nukes because he saw what happened to Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, both of whom abandoned their countries' weapons of mass destruction programs and then were overthrown by Western-backed forces.

"Our freedom here is achieved at the cost of the sacrifice of my family members left in North Korea"

Many analysts agree that Kim sees a nuclear weapon — and the retaliatory threat it poses — as an insurance policy against a similar strategy being pursued against him.

"That's why Kim Jong Un strongly believes that only a nuclear weapon can guarantee his rule," Thae said.

According to the former diplomat, the world should look to Kim's past actions to see what he is capable of. The young leader has reportedly been responsible for purges and executions of top officials and even members of his own family.

Last month, according to U.S. and South Korean intelligence officials, he masterminded the assassination of his own half-brother, at an airport in Malaysia.

"Kim Jong Un is a person who did not even hesitate to kill his uncle and a few weeks ago, even his half-brother," Thae said. "So, he is a man who can do anything to remove [anyone in] his way."

Since his defection Thae has been making media appearances and giving talks denouncing North Korea's controlling and often brutal society. For this reason he believes he could be the next victim.

"I am already a marked man," he said. "Kim Jong Un wants to eliminate any person or any country which poses a threat to him. And I think I am really a great threat to him."

Thae was the highest-ranking North Korean official to abandon the regime and enter public life in South Korea since the 1997 defection of Hwang Jang Yop, who was responsible for crafting "Juche" — North Korea's state ideology, which blends elements of Marxism with ultra-nationalism.

He made the decision to switch sides, he said, after his two sons began asking questions about why North Korea did not allow the internet, why there was no proper legal system and why officials were executed without trial.

His sons also complained they were being mocked by their British friends.

"All of my family members were a little bit frightened, you know, on that day," he said of the moment he decided to escape. "But I always told them that we have to try to be as peaceful as possible. We should carry the normal faces and normal feelings so that our plan of defection should not be noticed by anyone in the embassy."

This came at a high price, however. He was able to escape with his wife and children — but he fears his brother and sister in North Korea have been punished for his actions.

"Our freedom here is achieved at the cost of the sacrifice of my family members left in North Korea," he said. "When a defection of my level happens, the North Korean regime usually sends the family members of high officials, defectors, to remote areas or labor camps and, to some extent, even to political prison camps as well."

This fate is not unique. More than 100,000 people are believed to have been detained in North Korea's notorious gulags, where they are subjected to forced labor, torture and executions — treatment the United Nations said was "strikingly similar" to the atrocities of Nazi Germany.

Families are taken away by the country's secret police for arbitrary crimes such as "gossiping" about the state.

This is all part of the dictatorship's attempt to restrict information reaching North Korean families from the outside world. Most people cannot use the internet or access foreign media — Kim's attempt to maintain the pretense that his country is prosperous and the Western world is failing.

In all, North Korea "remains one of the most repressive states in the world," according to Human Rights Watch.

But according to Thae, the mask is slipping. More and more, North Koreans are able to watch South Korean films, giving them a true picture of their far more prosperous neighbor.

"I'm absolutely sure that once North Korean people are educated enough, then they may stand up," according to the former ambassador. "North Korean population now knows well that South Korea is democratic, the society and economy here are very well."

This, Thae said, "has already made the North Korean population not believe what the regime has been teaching and has been brainwashing them."

He added: "I think this is really a great change in people's mind, because they do not believe in the government's propaganda system."

In this shift may even lie the seeds of fundamental change in North Korea, according to Thae.

"I think that is very important. And once the people do not believe in what the leadership is saying, then there is a great possibility for possible uprising: what happened in Soviet Union, what happened in communist system in Eastern Europe," he said.

"Because when the people in those Eastern European countries knew that the Western Europe were much better than Eastern Europe — the democratic society was much better than communist society and one-party system — all of a sudden people stood up against the system," he added. "These things could also happen in North Korea."

Thae said that he and other defectors can play a crucial part removing Kim.

"Every day I am living in order to accelerate the speed of my return home," he said. "I think defectors like me, we should all unite together to bring down Kim Jong Un's regime."

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