By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A rare high-level defector from North Korea told U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday that disseminating more information in the reclusive country would ultimately be more effective than the billions of dollars being spent to address the military threat.
"We can educate (the) North Korean population to stand up by disseminating outside information," Thae Yong-ho, chief of mission at Pyongyang's embassy in Britain until he defected in 2016, said during an appearance at Congress two days before President Donald Trump's first trip to Asia since taking office.
Asked what kind of information he was discussing, Thae said background about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, like his birth date, to convey the idea that he and his family 'are not gods." He said South Korean videos, for example were increasingly available within the North.
"The U.S. is spending billions of dollars to cope with the military threat and yet how much does the U.S. spend each year on information activities involving North Korea in a year?
Unfortunately, it may be a tiny fraction," he said.
Thae made his first visit to Washington during rising international tensions over North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missiles program. The crisis is expected to dominate Trump's trip to the region, which includes a stop in South Korea.
Thae also told the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee that U.S. officials should meet with Kim at least once to try to understand his thinking and convince him that he is risking mass destruction.
Thae said Kim thinks he can force the United States to accept North Korea as a nuclear power and drive U.S. forces off the Korean peninsula.
Reuters reported on Tuesday that Washington was quietly pursuing direct diplomacy with North Korea, despite Trump's public assertion that such talks are a waste of time.
Amid a war of words between Kim, who has called Trump a "mentally deranged dotard," and Trump, who referred to Kim as "little rocket man," many U.S. lawmakers have been pushing for non-military solutions to the crisis.
Representative Ed Royce, the committee's Republican chairman, called at the hearing for a "dramatic increase" in the number of individuals and entities targeted for sanctions, without delay.
Thae is the highest-level defector from North Korea in two decades. In emotional testimony, he described a life before he left for South Korea that mixed relative privilege and oppression.
He said he defected because he could not let his sons lead "a life, like me, as a modern-day slave."
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Peter Cooney)