The former insider's view of dictator Kim Jong Un's oppressive regime comes just as North Korea's deputy U.N. ambassador stepped up the tough talk. "Nuclear war may break out any moment," Kim In Ryong said Monday.
But North Korea may just be bluffing.
"I don't know if North Korea will survive a year [under] sanctions. Many people will die," said Ri Jong Ho, a former senior North Korean economic official. He was speaking through a translator at the Asia Society in New York.
"There is not enough to eat there" and the sanctions have "completely blocked" trade, he said, forcing the government to send tens of thousands of laborers overseas. Ordinary North Korean households have no electricity, he added, while the capital city only gets three to four hours a day.
Ri was last posted in Dalian, China, where he helped run Office 39, a secret organization responsible for obtaining cash for the ruling Kim family. Ri also won the highest civilian honor in the dictatorship. But after a series of purges, he defected with his family in late 2014 and now lives in the greater Washington, D.C. area.
The defector painted his birth country as one in dire straits. China, North Korea's largest trade partner, is "very upset" with the rogue state for not reforming its economy and instead "begging" its giant neighbor for food, Ri said. On the other hand, Ri said, North Korean leaders met with Russian President Vladimir Putin but diplomacy "was not as easy as it might have been thought."
Kim is also offended that he has never met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xi also once chose to visit the southern part of the peninsula before the north.
During a 2014 meeting with North Korean officials, Kim Jong Un called Xi a "son of a b----" and the Chinese "sons of b------," Ri said, adding that there is fear China will "betray" North Korea.
As a result, building a relationship with the United States is the rogue state's primary focus.
Ri likened Kim's war of words with President Donald Trump to a "child and adult dispute."
The dictator thinks help from the U.S. will enable him to solidify his leadership, just as North Koreans generally think alliance with the U.S. helped South Korea prosper, Ri said. "North Korea is very fearful of South Korea."
To address its insecurities, North Korea fires missile after missile. Invariably, the world worries about the pariah state's growing nuclear threat and China repeatedly calls for dialogue. Ri, however, said he sees the solution as more than simply gathering together for talks.
When negotiating, the parties need to know what they want, which is far from the case here due to lack of understanding on both sides, Ri said. In order to successfully turn the situation around, foreign diplomats need to understand what is in Kim Jong Un's head and "change what he thinks."