This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A high-profile North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea has officially announced he is running for parliament in the South, in a move that has boosted the spirits of the marginalized North Korean refugee and defector community.
Thae Yong Ho, who was deputy ambassador at the North Korean embassy in the United Kingdom prior to his 2016 defection, told a press briefing in Seoul’s National Assembly that he would run for a seat in the assembly as a part of the right-wing opposition Liberty Korea Party in elections to be held on April 15.
Thae said that if elected, he could contribute to Korea’s unification by drawing upon the experience and understanding of North Korea’s government that he gained while working as a diplomat.
“I know more about North Korea’s system and regime than anyone else in South Korea,” Thae said.
“With my experience and expertise, I will work on making plans toward implementing a realistic unification policy that all Koreans can agree on,” he said, adding that any plan for unification must be based on liberal democracy, not a one-sided antagonistic winner-take-all approach.
The parliamentary candidate also said he would make efforts to improve the situation of the more than 30,000 North Korean refugees who have settled in South Korea.
Should Thae win the election, he would be the first North Korean defector to be elected as a lawmaker from a local constituency in South Korean history. An earlier defector, Cho Myung-Chul, served as a proportional representative from 2012 to 2016, representing the same party, which at that time was called the Saenuri Party.
Thae said that becoming a lawmaker elected by the people would have a huge impact not only among the community of defectors and refugees in the South, but on people inside North Korea.
“As soon as the North Korean people from the elite and common classes see that Thae Yong Ho, who was once a senior North Korean diplomat, but was able to become a lawmaker [in the South] representing a local constituency and elected by South Korean people, I believe they will have hope that we are one step closer to unification,” said Thae.
He said he wanted to run for office because he was frustrated to see South Korea send young North Koreans back to the North, and that if he were present in the National Assembly he could prevent such incidents.
RFA reported in November that Seoul had deported two North Korean fishermen back to North Korea after they had confessed to killing 16 crew members before their arrival in the South. The two were not given a trial in South Korea, and the Ministry of Unification said they were deported because of the threat they could pose as members of South Korean society.
North Korean refugees and defectors in the South occupy a stigmatized societal position, often looked down upon by native-born South Koreans.
A report by the American Psychological Association published in Sep. 2018 said North Koreans living in South Korea experience mistreatment, discrimination, alienation and suspicion by natives of South Korea.
RFA’s Korean Service spoke to several refugees who said they had high hopes for Thae because his election would be a big win for the community.
Seo Jae-pyong, the secretary general of the Association of North Korean Refugees in South Korea told RFA Tuesday that it was courageous to run in an election where South Koreans are voting for the person to best represent them.
“It is impressive that he has made a bold political challenge as a South Korean citizen who is a North Korean defector,” said Seo.
He also urged Thae to contribute to the effectiveness of the ROK North Korea Human Rights Act, which he said has been nullified even though it became law in 2016.
Conservatives say that the law, which requires human rights to be an integral component of Seoul’s North Korea strategy, has been undermined by various overtures toward Pyongyang made by President Moon Jae-In’s administration, including three inter-Korean summits in 2018.
Kim Jieun, a refugee who has been practicing Asian traditional medicine in South Korea after arriving in 1999, was also supportive of Thae.
“I want to applaud,” she said, adding, “I think he made a very difficult decision and it will be a very difficult path.”
Lim Il, a refugee who became a writer in South Korea, said he was surprised by the fact that Thae is running for a position where he needs votes from ordinary South Koreans to win, but had nothing but praise for him.
“He is showing us that anything is possible. In that sense, I would like to say that it is a very courageous decision and a good one.”
According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, more than 33,000 North Koreans have entered South Korea over the past several decades, including 546 as of June last year.