North Korean defector Thae Yong-ho is running for a parliamentary seat in the South Korean election. Photo; Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

High-profile defector Thae Yong-ho – damned as “human scum” by North Korean state media – will run for a seat in South Korea’s parliamentary elections on April 15.

The former deputy North Korean ambassador to London told foreign reporters in Seoul on Wednesday he was keen to get a seat in the National Assembly in order to reach influential North Koreans living abroad – to persuade them about the basics of democratic governance and freedoms.

Thae, who has emerged as a vocal critic of North Korea since his defection in 2016, said he would use his years of diplomatic experience to create a regional consensus on the Kim Jong Un regime and its nuclear threat.

Speaking forcefully, he delivered a withering criticism of the South Korean government’s conciliatory approach toward North Korea and its refusal to address human rights.

Parliamentary run

A former deputy ambassador to London, who defected with his wife and two children, Thae is the highest-profile former North Korean in South Korea today. But given the secrecy surrounding elite defectors, it is not clear if he is the highest-ranked official to swap sides.

Thae is a surprise candidate in the upcoming parliamentary election, seen as the biggest test of voters so far on South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who took power in 2017 for a five-year term.

Moon has taken a conciliatory stance toward North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but his strategy has been complicated as the relationship between US President Donald Trump and Kim soured following their failure to reach a deal at last year’s summit in Hanoi.

Thae has joined the main conservative opposition, the United Future Party. But he made clear that the UFP has not decided what district he will contest. Local media has speculated that the political newcomer will be offered a safe seat in Gangnam, a prosperous conservative stronghold.

The “trigger point” that convinced him to enter politics, Thae said, was the forced return of two North Koreans last year after they were picked up by the South Korean navy in waters near the inter-Korean border. Pyongyang claimed the two were murderers, and Seoul handed them over without offering either the chance to make their case before a South Korean court.

“I was very much shocked by the news that two young North Koreans were sent back… I could not sleep that night,” Thae said. “If someone is in a river shouting, ‘Save me!’ Do you save them now – or will you judge if they are a criminal or not?”

Messaging Pyongyang

Thae claimed that North Koreans have started showing an interest in South Korean politics due to his campaign and said he is running for a seat in South Korea’s parliament in order to reach tens of thousands of North Korean expatriates – migrant workers, students, diplomats – around the world.

“Almost every single one of them” owns a smartphone, said Thae, who has a major social media presence. “The very first thing overseas North Koreans buy with their overseas paycheck is a smartphone.”

He estimated the number of overseas North Koreans at 50,000 to 70,000. “We can reach those North Koreans with the power of media and the internet,” he said, adding that North Koreans who are cleared to work abroad, even as laborers, are elite citizens or have elite connections.

“Breaking down communism and totalitarianism will take more than coercive force,” he said, arguing that North Koreans need to be educated in the “ideals of liberty, democracy and the well-being of the market economy.” 

This was essential, he said, as even leading North Koreans did not understand democratic mechanisms. Recalling his diplomatic tenure in the UK, he noted that London’s policy toward North Korea was “critical engagement,” hence high-ranking North Korean visitors are always invited to view parliament. 

“The first image they get is, ‘Is this a parliament, or is this a gangsters’ club? There is no law, they are fighting – and this is democracy?!?’” Thae said. “It is a very long process to let high-ranking North Koreans know this basic concept of freedom and democracy.”

Against Kim

Thae also wants to leverage the “experience and knowledge” earned from 30 years’ work for Pyongyang’s foreign service to create regional and international consensus.

If he wins a seat, he plans to visit Washington and craft a “new strategy for diplomacy” toward North Korea.  

He called Trump’s first summit with Kim in 2018 “a total diplomatic catastrophe,” but said that since the failure of last year’s Hanoi summit he was “a little bit relieved” that US diplomacy “has been restored to its usual principles.”

He also warned Trump against leveraging North Korea for domestic or electoral purposes.

Thae was more scathing about the Moon administration’s North Korea policy. Moon has focused on a conciliatory approach to Kim and attempting to restart economic relations across the DMZ – while ignoring human rights abuses and lack of freedoms. 

But Thae likened the economic exploitation of North Korea’s cheap labor and natural resources to Japan’s colonization of Korea between 1910 and 1945, and accused the Moon administration – many of whose members were pro-democracy demonstrators protesting against Seoul’s authoritarian governance in the 1980s – of hypocrisy. 

“A lot of people who fought for free democracy in [South] Korea have become vested interests,” he said, accusing them of prioritizing economic development over human rights in their North Korean policy.

Viable candidacy?

However, when it came to strictly domestic South Korean issues, Thae was vague, saying only that he would fully follow his party’s policy and seek to engage voters once an electoral district was assigned to him.

Voter engagement may be tricky given security concerns. Thae’s smartphone has been hacked by North Koreans, and a group of left-leaning South Koreans have even demanded that he be arrested. On Wednesday, he was accompanied by a detail of three bodyguards.

Whether Thae’s North Korean platform will animate South Korean voters – particularly the young, who appear to have little interest in cross-border issues – remains to be seen.

His bid “might have resonance with certain people as part of the anti-government vote, and it would attract Christians who think the current government is being naïve and soft on North Korea,” said Mike Breen, the Seoul-based author of The New Koreans. “But that is a national issue, so it might not go down with a local constituency.”

If he wins, Thae will be the second North Korean defector to sit in South Korea’s parliament. Cho Myong-chol, a former academic, was a National Assemblyman for the conservative party from 2012 to 2016.