Preparatory Committee members of the North and South Korea Reunification Party speak to foreign reporters in Seoul. Photo; Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

SEOUL, South Korea – A newly-formed party composed of and representing North Korean defectors says it will run in South Korea’s National Assembly elections on April 15.

The nascent (and tentatively named) North and South Korea Reunification Party, which claims to represent the 34,500 defectors in South Korea, hopes to capture up to five seats in the 300-seat, unicameral National Assembly, party representatives said Friday.

The April election will establish South Korea’s parliamentary geography for the next four years, and will also provide a precursor for the election of the next president, who serves a single five-year term, in 2022.

While high-profile defector Thae Yong-ho – formerly North Korea’s deputy ambassador to London – is running for a seat with the main conservative opposition in April, there has never before been a defector-focused party.

Party people

The party was inaugurated on Friday. Its preparatory committee comprises defectors – all male – who have been in South Korea for between 15 and 40 years. Five committee members spoke to foreign reporters prior to the inauguration ceremony.

Committee Member Ahn Chan-il noted that the number of defectors nationwide now surpasses that of an electoral district.

“We are representing North Korean defectors who have, for some years, voiced concerns that they need a political party [in South Korea],” Ahn said. He also suggested that the party could rise as a rival of the (North) Korea Workers Party.

“In North Korea, we have underground members,” Ahn claimed. “We also have family members who we are in communication with, via [smuggled cell] phones…out of 25 million North Koreans, we can garner at least one tenth of them to work on our side.“

How such a vast number of underground members could be recruited and mobilized inside a regime as tightly controlled as North Korea – and indeed, whether such activities might breach South Korea’s tough national security laws – was not detailed.

Perhaps more realistically, Committee Member Kim Seong-min said an aim of the party was to “muster the power of North Korean defector society.”

Within South Korean, there are literally dozens of tiny organizations – often single-person operations – representing defectors in some way, shape or form. And indeed, the party preparatory committee members who spoke to reporters all head such bodies.

Ahn is president of the World Institute for North Korean studies; Kim is president of Free North Korea Radio; Kim Heung-kwang is president of the North Korean Intellectuals’ Solidarity; Kang Chol-hwan is president of the North Korea Strategy Center; and Kim Ju-il is president of International Solidarity for North Korean Refugees.

These, and other bodies, have thus far lacked any unified voice, and likewise lacked representation.

One committee member suggested the new party could also represent a wider sphere of voters than defectors. “Because defectors are classified as minorities or marginalized, we want to speak for multicultural families and other minorities,” said Kim Ju-il.  

Party policy

With the issues of legitimacy and face being so central to the Pyongyang regime, Committee Member Kim Heung-kwang suggested that the new party would present Kim Jong Un with a real dilemma.

“I believe that the greatest measure to oppose Kim Jong Un and his tactics is our party,” he said. “I believe he is now pondering how to best respond to the establishment of our party.”

Committee Member Kang Chol-hwan, who has written a book about his experiences in North Korea, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, stressed that many defectors are dissatisfied with the chummy relationship South Korean President Moon Jae-in has sought to forge with the North’s Kim.

“President Moon Jae-in has taken a direction of forming relations with the North that we cannot understand,” Kang said. “It is kind of like a relationship between an owner and a slave.”

With the majority of North Korean defectors being strongly opposed to the Kim regime, party committee members said they want a voice in crafting Seoul’s policy, and ensuring consistency from one administration to the next.

“We believe North Korea policies have wavered from government to government and now there are some politicians who are walking on eggshells as they don’t want to anger Kim Jong Un,” said Kim Seong-min. “We need to work on principles devised by defectors whatever government takes office.”

Party time?

At least one committee member addressed the stern challenge ahead. Not only is the election just weeks away, the party lacks electioneering experience and public rallies are impossible with South Korea engulfed in fear of the novel coronavirus.

Kim Heung-kwan suggested that the party could support more established conservative parties and also seek alliances with minority parties. When it came to igniting voters, he suggested taking a leaf out of Pyongyang’s book.

“North Korea is good at propaganda, so we need to learn the good parts and integrate them into our strategy,” he said, adding that YouTube would provide a key platform.

How a newly-formed, single-issue machine will fare in April is a vexed question – particularly given that foreign policy, even North Korea policy, is rarely a front-of-mind issue in South Korean elections.

“If they criticize the ruling party for its failures on foreign policy, they have a chance, but if it is anything else, they will have difficulty gaining traction,” James Kim, a public opinion expert at Seoul-based think tank the Asan Institute, told Asia Times. “If you take a look at public opinion, the first issue is always the economy and jobs.”

Even the party’s focus on reunification – an outcome for which there is no cross-border process in place – may not light up voters.

“Most people, over 60%, support reunification, but 70-80% do not expect it in their lifetimes,” Asan’s Kim added. “And if you ask if they would be willing pay for reunification, the percentage goes right down… I think people support the idea of reunification, but not the policy.”

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