Though many North Korean refugees have lived outside of their former totalitarian homeland for only a few years, that isn’t stopping a growing number of them from participating in South Korea’s democracy.
Just two months ahead of South Korea’s legislative election, a pair of North Korean defectors announced they will run for seats in parliament. Separately, a group of North Korean defectors is trying to form their own political party.
The unprecedented attempt at political organization underscores the dissatisfaction felt by many defectors, who are among the poorest class in wealthy South Korea. Many feel discriminated against and not properly equipped to handle life in a capitalist country.
“We’ve been treated as foreigners” in South Korea, said defector Ahn Chan-il, at an event this week announcing the launch of what is tentatively called the Inter-Korean Unification Party. “Now we have a central network to enhance our activities.”
Though their status as a minority party likely means their political power will be limited, the developments indicate defectors are taking the initiative to improve their plight, said Casey Lartigue, who co-founded a group that helps North Korean refugees learn English.
“Instead of waiting for South Koreans to speak on their behalf, they are seeking to do so themselves, unlike in North Korea, where they either never would have had a chance to form their own party or would have followed the regime’s party line,” Lartigue said.
Plight of defectors
One of the defectors running for a seat in the National Assembly 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.
“Not only am I a defector, I belong to the young generation and am also a disabled person living in Seoul. So I hope to do many things for Korea,” the 38-year-old said.
Ji said he was motivated 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 were outraged, saying the repatriation amounted to sending the men to almost certain death in North Korea, where they would not receive a fair trial.
Many also point to a July incident in which a North Korean defector and her 6-year-old son were found dead in their tiny apartment in Seoul. By the time their bodies were found, they were so decomposed that authorities could not even determine a cause of death. Many suspect they starved to death — in one of the richest countries in the world.
“Defectors should have entered politics a long time ago, maybe then such a miserable death ... would not have happened,” said Eom Yeong-nam, who escaped North Korea in 2010.
The other defector running for office is Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean deputy ambassador to London, who fled to the South in 2016 with his two sons and wife.
One the highest-profile North Korean defector in years, Thae has been highly critical of North Korea, which in return has labeled him “human scum.”
More recently, though, Thae has also begun criticizing the South Korean government and its outreach to North Korea.
Speaking to a group of foreign journalists Wednesday in Seoul, Thae said some in South Korea are “trying to appease” the North by not bringing up its human rights abuses.
“They are going back to the approach of economy first and human rights later...I believe that is very unjust,” Thae said.
The 57-year-old has filled Seoul lecture halls, written a regular newspaper column, and is a sought-after voice for his insights into the North Korean diplomatic apparatus.
If he wins in April, Thae would become the first North Korean defector to occupy a so-called “constituency seat” in South Korea’s parliament, which would give him more leverage and potentially allow him to be a long-term force in parliament.
He would be doing so as a member of the main conservative party, potentially becoming a prominent voice among opposition forces, which are badly divided following the 2017 impeachment of conservative President Park Geun-hye.
But by formally joining Seoul’s conservative political ranks, defectors risk politicizing their message, said Hong Gang-chul, who left North Korea in 2014 and now has a YouTube channel that deals with North Korea-related politics.
“I think the political participation of defectors is a positive thing, but right now the majority of that participation is one-sided. They demonize the North and make it a public enemy,” he said. “And that is a problem ... it is necessary to have different defector voices.”
Most defectors who flee North Korea, one of the world’s most oppressive countries, see the regime as their enemy and therefore oppose any engagement with the North.
But in reality, many defectors living in the South do not have the time or money to become involved in politics, Hong said.
“Those who are shown in the media fiercely protesting or rallying near the demilitarized zone, that is actually a very small group,” he said. “Many people barely even have enough money to survive. Some have never even voted at all.”
Hong said he is one of the few defectors who support the ruling Democratic Party.
Thae said the main reason he joined the conservative United Future Party is that it is the only political group that asked him to run.
As he prepares to enter what can often be a messy, fractious world of South Korean democracy, Thae appears confident. And he says he hopes North Koreans are watching.
“I want to show the North Korean people how freedom and democracy works in South Korea through me,” he said.