North Korea defector warns military will react to any sign of US attack

North Korean military officers have been trained to trigger a devastating counterstrike if their country is attacked by the United States, according to a high-profile defector.

Former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong Ho's comments to U.S. lawmakers suggest that military action on the Korean peninsula — a course of action repeatedly raised by President Donald Trump — would almost certainly result in a catastrophic number of civilian casualties.

"North Korean officers are trained to press the button without any further instructions from the general command if something happens on their side," Thae said Wednesday. "So if there is any sound of fire or bombs or strikes from Americans, the [North Korean] artillery and short-range missiles will fire against South Korea."

A key U.S. ally, South Korea is home to more than 50 million people. Some 28,000 American troops are stationed in the country. Seoul, its capital, is just 30 miles from the North Korean border and in range of thousands of artillery pieces that are trained on the city.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un applauds during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father, Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Missiles are driven past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other high ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
High ranking military officers cheer as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrives for a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
People react as they march past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
TOPSHOT - Korean People's Army (KPA) tanks are displayed during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on April 15 saluted as ranks of goose-stepping soldiers followed by tanks and other military hardware paraded in Pyongyang for a show of strength with tensions mounting over his nuclear ambitions. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
Korean People's Army (KPA) soldiers march on Kim Il-Sung squure during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on April 15 saluted as ranks of goose-stepping soldiers followed by tanks and other military hardware paraded in Pyongyang for a show of strength with tensions mounting over his nuclear ambitions. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves to people attending a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Military vehicles carry missiles with characters reading "Pukkuksong" during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Members of the Korean People's Army (KPA) ride on mobile missile launchers during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on April 15 saluted as ranks of goose-stepping soldiers followed by tanks and other military hardware paraded in Pyongyang for a show of strength with tensions mounting over his nuclear ambitions. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean soldiers march and shout slogans during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
An unidentified rocket is displayed during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on April 15 saluted as ranks of goose-stepping soldiers followed by tanks and other military hardware paraded in Pyongyang for a show of strength with tensions mounting over his nuclear ambitions. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
People carry flags in front of statues of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung (L) and late leader Kim Jong Il during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
North Korean soldiers march and shout slogans during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father, Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A soldier salutes from atop an armoured vehicle as it drives past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
North Korean soldiers march and shout slogans during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
North Korean soldiers attend a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Attendees carry sheets in colours of the national flag of North Korea during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
North Korean soldiers, some of them on horses, march during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Civilian attendees watch North Korean soldiers marching during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
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Thae fled his post as deputy North Korean ambassador in London last year and has spent his time since publicly criticizing the regime from his new home in the South.

In an exclusive interview to NBC News in April, Thae warned that Kim Jong Un was prepared to use nuclear weapons against the U.S. The North Korean dictator has not yet displayed such a capability.

However, North Korea has conducted several ballistic missile tests this year in defiance of U.N. resolutions, including two intercontinental ballistic missile tests that experts said suggest that a missile could reach parts of the United States.

The U.S. and South Korea are technically still at war with North Korea because the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce and not a peace treaty.

On Wednesday, Thae told House Foreign Affairs Committee that the human rights abuses committed by his homeland, which is governed by one of the most repressive states on the planet, were "tantamount to the crimes committed by the Nazis."

Related: Bomb Shelters Are Everywhere in Seoul

Tensions have risen between Kim and the Trump administration, with Washington matching the warlike language of Pyongyang and Kim continuing to ramp up his burgeoning nuclear and missile programs.

Trump has threatened to "totally destroy" North Korea and rain "fire" and "fury"on the country of 25 million if its regime continued to threaten the U.S.

While Thae said that the U.S. should always preserve the threat of war as a last resort, he questioned whether the White House had done enough to solve the crisis by other means.

"We cannot change the policy of terror of the Kim Jong Un regime," he said. "But we can educate North Korean population to stand up by disseminating outside information."

Activists currently smuggle USB sticks and float balloons across the border, with the illicit packages containing everything from anti-North Korea leaflets to Hollywood movies. This gives a glimpse of the outside world to ordinary North Koreans, who are not able to access the internet or foreign media.

"Is the United States really doing enough in this regard?" Thae said of these subversive tactics. "The U.S. is spending billions of dollars to cope with the military threat. Yet how much does the U.S. spend each year on information activities involving North Korea in a year? Unfortunately, it may be tiny fraction."

He said these tactics were already having an effect, helping foment a "flourishing" black market economy and greater knowledge of Western culture.

"The domestic system of control is weakening as the days go by," he said. "These changes ... make it increasingly possible to think about civilian uprising in North Korea."

The U.S. should push Russia and China to impose greater sanctions, Thae said, as well as urging Beijing to stop its policy of repatriating North Korean escapees.

He also suggested that the U.S. should meet the North Korean leader to assess his thinking.

RELATED: Everything you didn't know about Kim Jong Un

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Everything you didn't know about Kim Jong Un
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1. While Kim Jong Un's birthday on January 8 is a national holiday, it is unknown exactly how old the North Korean leader is. It's widely believed he is in his early-mid thirties. In 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department listed his birth year as 1984 when they placed sanctions on North Korea.

 (KCNA via REUTERS)

2. Kim Jong Un is the world's youngest leader, according to the date listed by the Treasury. 

(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

3. Kim Jong Un is very passionate about basketball. He is reportedly a big fan of Michael Jordan and has a friendly relationship with Jordan's former Chicago Bulls teammate Dennis Rodman. Rodman has visited the secluded nation multiple times and even sang him "Happy Birthday" before an exhibition game in Jan. 2014. 

(REUTERS/KCNA)

4. Kim Jong Un reportedly has a love for smoking, whiskey and cheese

(KCNA/via Reuters)

5. Kim Jong Un's older half-brother Kim Jong Nam was killed in Feb. 2017 by two women who smeared VX nerve agent on his face at an airport in Kuala Lumpur. The women were arrested following his death. Many believe the hit was directed by North Korea. 

(KCNA; REUTERS)

6. Kim Jong Un has two college degrees. One is in physics from Kim il Sung University and another as an Army officer obtained from the Kim Il Sung Military University.

(KCNA/REUTERS)

7. Kim Jong Un attended boarding school in Switzerland. It is widely disputed how much time he spent at the school. Most reports say he was abroad from 1998-2000. 

(KCNA/REUTERS)

8. Kim Jong Un is the only general in the world that does not have any military experience. 

(KCNA/REUTERS)

9. He married Ri Sol Ju in 2009. The couple has at least one daughter named Ju Ae. 

(KCNA/REUTERS)

10. Kim Jong Un had his uncle Jang Song Thaek arrested and executed for treachery in 2013. 

(REUTERS/Kyodo)

11. Kim Jong Un hand selected North Korea's first all-female music group -- Moranbong Band. They made their debut in 2012. 

(ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

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"Some people do not believe in soft power, but only in military options. But it is necessary to reconsider whether we have tried all non-military options before we decide that military action against North Korea is all that is left," he said.

"Before any military action is taken," he added. "I think it is necessary to meet Kim Jong Un at least once to understand his thinking and to try to convince him that he would be destroyed if he continues his current direction."

North Korea has said in public statements that it wants an official end to the Korean War. It also wants nothing short of full normalization of relations with the U.S. and to be treated with respect and as an equal in the global arena.

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