SEOUL -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants "massive financial assistance from Japan in exchange for returning abduction victims," former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong Ho told the Mainichi Shimbun in an interview here.
Thae, 55, who defected to South Korea in August 2016, was the North's deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom.
With regard to a special investigation committee on abductees, which Pyongyang declared would disband, Thae said, "The division concerned remains behind the scenes."
U.N. sanctions against North Korea over the country's nuclear and missile tests have dealt a serious blow to its economy, and Thae's remarks suggest that the Kim regime wants to extract financial help by linking it to the abduction issue in a bid to make up for the damage.
Thae added, "Kim Jong Un won't move to resolve the abduction issue unless Japan clearly shows him a bag full of money."
When asked about the Pyongyang government division in charge of the abduction issue, Thae emphasized, "I don't know its correct name, but there is a division specializing in the issue of abduction victims within the State Security Department." He stated that North Korea "of course grasps whether all abduction victims are safe or not," though he declined to elaborate further.
Japan is demanding that Pyongyang unconditionally release and return all Japanese abduction victims.
The former senior diplomat said North Korea "can't openly offer to release abductees in exchange for financial assistance." He suggests that Pyongyang fears that such an offer could worsen Japanese public opinion of the North. However, Thae said, Kim is "trying to gain funds from Japan in connection with the abduction issue, to give the North Korean economy a blood transfusion." He added that he believes the North will resolve the abduction issue in a way that benefits Japan if Tokyo pays Pyongyang.
South Korea's Reunification Ministry views Thae and former Ambassador to Egypt Chang Sung Gil, who defected to the United States in 1997, as the highest-ranking North Korean diplomats to flee the country. A source close to South Korea's National Intelligence Service said, "His (Thae's) wife and her family are close to North Korea's political elite and he himself is a person of high status. He's not in charge of the abduction issue at the Foreign Ministry, but he may have come into contact with crucial information."
Shigeo Iizuka, head of the Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea, declined to comment on Thae's statements.