SEOUL, South Korea — A senior North Korean defector has told NBC News that the country's "desperate" dictator is prepared to use nuclear weapons to strike the United States and its allies.
Thae Yong Ho is the most high profile North Korean defector in two decades, meaning he is able to give a rare insight into the secretive, authoritarian regime.
According to Thae, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is "desperate in maintaining his rule by relying on his [development of] nuclear weapons and ICBM." He was using an acronym for intercontinental ballistic missiles — a long range rocket that in theory would be capable of hitting the U.S.
"Once he sees that there is any kind of sign of a tank or an imminent threat from America, then he would use his nuclear weapons with ICBM," he added in an exclusive interview on Sunday.
Thae was living in London and serving as North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom when he and his family defected to South Korea and were announced to the world in August.
He was not directly involved in North Korea's weapons program but believes his country "has reached a very significant level of nuclear development."
North Korea is estimated to have upward of eight nuclear weapons but has not demonstrated the ability to attach them to a long-range rocket, an ICBM, capable of hitting the U.S.
Analysts are unsure exactly how close the regime is to achieving this aim, but a senior official told NBC News in January that his government was ready to test-fire an ICMB "at any time, at any place."
Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told NBC News that American officials were particularly troubled by this latest threat.
"They have the nuclear capability — they've demonstrated that," he said. "And then, where they're going with the miniaturization of that, whether they can actually weaponize a missile, that's what's driving the current concern." READ MORE