U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un met Wednesday in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by Ritchie B. Tongo/EPA-EFE
SEOUL, March 1 (UPI) -- A high-profile North Korean defector who fled Pyongyang's embassy in London said Friday the United States and South Korea are taking the incorrect approach to Pyongyang.
Thae Yong-ho, the former North Korean deputy ambassador to London, was speaking at the Global Peace Convention in Seoul a day after talks between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un collapsed on the second day of the Hanoi summit.
Thae said he was "surprised" the talks ended without a deal, but Trump's decision to walk away may have been the right thing to do.
"The sudden break of the Trump-Kim Jong Un summit yesterday was to some extent expected," Thae said in fluent English, adding negotiating directly with Kim is "a wrong start."
But Thae also said negotiations that aim to "control and manage" the Kim regime would work; by contrast, negotiations that exclusively focus on a denuclearization objective will fail.
South Korea is on the wrong track with its "philosophy of reunification," the defector said.
"The majority of South Korean people, and especially the established elite, are thinking that the reunification of the Korean Peninsula can be achieved by negotiating with the Kim family," Thae said. "That is the wrong approach."
Thae, formerly a trusted member of the elite who once escorted Kim's older brother to an Eric Clapton concert in London, also said the only way to achieve denuclearization is by having the North Korean masses "stand up and accept reunification as their own destiny."
Religious freedom key to change
Ordinary North Koreans have been unable to challenge authority or seek greater freedoms enjoyed by their counterparts in the South.
One of the reasons for the lack of progress is rooted in the regime's intolerance of religious beliefs, said Ahn Chan-il, a North Korea defector and president of the World Institute for North Korea Studies.
"North Korea has no religion for only one reason," said Ahn. "The Kims are the religion."
Ahn, who fled North Korea in 1979, added people are "ashamed" to admit to the practice of religion.
"One cannot openly say they have a religion" even though a church and dozens of temples are in the North, Ahn said.
North Korea's ban on religious freedoms -- taken for granted in the South -- is not without irony; according to Ahn, two out of three religious people were in northern Korea before 1945.
Thae, who is not Christian but "maintains an interest in religious freedom," said North Korea's 10 principles on establishing a "monolithic ideological system" are almost exactly the same as the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament.
"Even the order of the 10 principles are almost similar to the Ten Commandments," Thae said. "If you change God into Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Un, it's the same."
The defector also said Saturday is the North Korean Sabbath, a day devotion to the Kims -- another example of how the regime took Christian practice to solidify control over its population.
Second North Korean plant
As debate continues over what could follow the breakdown of nuclear talks on Thursday, Thae, who has testified before U.S. lawmakers, said the two countries likely walked away from the negotiating table not over sanctions but over the underemphasized "second uranium enrichment plant" Trump briefly mentioned at the press conference in Hanoi.
Thae said Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo "tried very hard" to hide the plant's significance, as did North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and diplomat Choi Sun Hee, who said economic sanctions were the main obstacle.
"Actually talks broke down because of that hidden uranium enrichment facility," Thae said.
"It was really unprecedented, but also a surprise to me," he added, referring to the summit's outcome.
The Global Peace Convention of the Global Peace Foundation is affiliated with the ultimate holding company that owns United Press International.