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North Korean Defectors Find Political Voice in the South

Thae Yong Ho, a former minister at the North Korean Embassy in London who came to Seoul with his family in 2016, speaks during a press conference at the Seoul Foreign Correspondent Club in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Ahn…

A growing wave of defector politicians hope to change how South Koreans view the North.

Despite having only a few years' experience living in a democratic country, an increasing number of North Korean defectors are becoming involved in South Korean politics. For the first time, two North Korean defectors are participating in South Korea’s legislative election, to be held in April. They hope to improve defectors' status in South Korea and change how South Koreans think of the North.

Around 200 North Korean defectors are meeting in Seoul — singing a folk song about the future unification of North and South Korea.

They’re trying to form the first South Korean political party made up entirely of North Korean defectors.

Kang Chul-hwan is helping set up the party. He says no one represents the people of North Korea and that the approximately 35,000 defectors in South Korea are neglected.

They could start to get a small amount of political clout this April, when South Korea holds parliamentary elections. Two North Korean defectors are running as members of the conservative opposition.

One of them is Ji Seong-ho, a former North Korean street beggar who lost an arm and a leg during what he says was an attempt to steal coal from a train. Ji fled to the South in 2006 and is now a human rights activist.

Ji says he belongs to the younger generation, and as a defector and a disabled person living in Seoul, he hopes to accomplish many things for Korea.

Ji says he was spurred to run for office after South Korea forcibly returned two North Korean fishermen in November. Seoul accused the men of killing their captain and 15 other crewmen but many defectors said the move amounted to sending the men to almost certain death in North Korea.

That incident also motivated Thae Yong-ho to enter politics. Thae, a former North Korean diplomat, is one of the highest profile defectors in years. He recently spoke to foreign journalists in Seoul.

“I want to show to the North Korean people how freedom and democracy works in this country, through me... so that is my purpose: to let them be educated," he said.

Since moving to the South in 2016, Thae has been highly critical of North Korea. More recently, though, Thae has also begun criticizing the South Korean government.

Specifically, he wants better treatment of defectors, many of whom feel discriminated against and are among the poorest group in wealthy South Korea.

Although all North Korean defectors go through a mandatory three-month training to learn how to live on their own in the capitalist South, many still fall through the cracks.

In July, a North Korean defector and her 6-year-old son were found dead in their apartment. apparently having starved to death.

Although the government said this week that average defector monthly income had reached an all-time high, for many it’s not enough.

Thae says he wants to make it easier for defectors to get educational scholarships.

“I want to give more opportunities to those newly arrived middle-aged people who want to continue their education," he said. "Because I'm absolutely sure that one day Korea will be united. And if we are united again, who will go first to North Korea to do administration? It must be those people who are from North Korea.”

Thae also accuses some in South Korea of “trying to appease” the North by not bringing up its human rights abuses.

Perhaps predictably, North Korea doesn’t think much of Thae. Since he left, North Korean state media gave him the label “human scum.”

It’s also not clear just how much power Thae and other defectors will be able to amass in South Korea. Most of them have aligned themselves with conservatives, who are badly fractured after the 2017 impeachment of conservative President Park Geun-hye, and some analysts have warned that defectors now risk politicizing their message.