NEW YORK – The voters of South Korea have elected two North Korean defectors to the country’s National Assembly.
Both incoming lawmakers, Thae Kumin (also known under pseudonym Thae Yong-ho) and Ji Seong-ho, have spoken at multiple Human Rights Foundation events including landmark speeches at the Oslo Freedom Forum, developing their international profiles in outspoken opposition to the Kim regime in North Korea.
“I am humbled to become a powerful voice for the issues that matter to voters, including so many North Korean defectors. I owe HRF infinite gratitude for championing me and developing an international network of support for defectors. In recognizing me the voters have also recognized your efforts. In me you will have an everlasting friend,” said Seong-ho in an email to HRF’s president Thor Halvorssen.
Thae is the first high-profile North Korean defector to be directly elected into the National Assembly in South Korea’s history, at 58.4% as compared to the 39.6% won by his opponent. He also represents one of three districts in Gangnam (Gangnam-gab, comprising the glitzy Apgujeong and Cheongdam areas). Mr. Ji is the second North Korean to be elected through proportional representation, after Dr. Cho Myeong-cheol, who was elected in 2012.
“I think the people of Gangnam chose me after seeing my courage – how I came here looking for freedom, democracy and a market economy,” stated Thae in an interview with Yonhap News. He clarified his stance on policy towards North Korea at the United Future Party’s internal security meeting on April 15th, criticizing the incumbent government, “[t]his government has only put on a façade of peace between the South and the North, while political issues persist. The Blue House must face reality and set its policy towards the North straight.”
The future assemblymen, who ran for the United Future Party and the Future Korea Party, respectively, are expected to be part of a small but vocal opposition against South Korea’s incumbent leader Moon Jae-in, who is running for reelection in 2022 and whose party has secured a 60% majority of the assembly seats in this election.
HRF has been focused on helping North Koreans access information and media from the outside world since 2016 through its Flash Drives for Freedom program, sending upwards of 90,000 USB drives into the country for distribution on the black market. Estimates suggest these drives have now reached anywhere from 900,000 to a million North Koreans.
North Koreans are allowed to know little about freedom of speech, while the state attempts to control everything they do, say, and think. Ignoring the regime’s strict rules leads to torture, forced labor, and even execution. The people of North Korea have no access to the internet, no foreign postal mail, and limited ability to make phone calls abroad.
But even for those who manage to escape and resettle, defectors from North Korea have struggled to gain political representation in South Korea.
Since coming into office in 2017, the Moon Jae-in government has ignored and repressed the voices of North Korean human rights activists and defectors. In April 2018, National Intelligence agents stopped Thae Yong-ho from speaking to the press at a human rights conference.
In September 2018, the Ministry of Unification slashed the budget of the North Korean human rights projects by 93%. By the end of that year, the Ministry of Unification had also shut down the doors of the North Korean Human Rights Foundation’s office. In 2019, two North Korean fishermen were repatriated to the North after claiming asylum in the South, in clear violation of the South Korean constitution which accepts all North Korean defectors as its own citizens once they clearly state their intent to stay.
But political support for the rights of North Korean defectors is growing. Just this year, the South-North Unification Party was created by defectors “in order to represent the 33,500 North Korean defectors living in the South.” Despite winning no seats at the elections, the party is South Korea’s first North Korean defector-led party, highlighting the community’s desire for political representation. The party is co-chaired by Radio Free Asia president Kim Seong-min and World Institute for North Korea Studies chair Ahn Chan-il. Addressing their fellow countrymen in the North, their website says the party serves as an “alternative to the Workers Party of Korea.”
In his celebratory speech, Mr. Thae has said that he plans to work on legislation helping North Korean defectors with receiving university education and expanding resettlement aid – promises also put forth by the South-North Unification Party.
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies.