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Two Who Fled North Korea Seek Political Office in the South

Thae Yong-ho, former North Korean deputy ambassador to Britain who defected to South Korea, speaks during a press conference to support Cho Seong Gil, a North Korean diplomat in Italy seeking asylum, in Seoul on January 9, 2019.
Thae Yong-ho, former North Korean deputy ambassador to Britain who defected to South Korea, speaks during a press conference to support Cho Seong Gil, a North Korean diplomat in Italy seeking asylum, in Seoul on January 9, 2019.
Two Who Fled North Korea Seek Office in the South
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An increasing number of North Koreans who fled their country have become involved in politics in South Korea.

For the first time, two North Korean defectors are running for office in South Korea’s legislative elections. The two hope to improve conditions for defectors and to change the way South Koreans think of the North.

The elections will be held on April 15.

About 200 North Korean defectors recently met in Seoul. They sang songs about the future unification of North and South Korea. They are trying to form the first South Korean political party made up completely of North Korean defectors.

Kang Chul-hwan is assisting in setting up the political party. He said no one represents the people of North Korea. It is estimated that there are about 35,000 defectors in South Korea. Kang said he believes that they are neglected.

Those feelings could change if they get political representation in the National Assembly.

The two North Korean defectors who are seeking office are running as members of conservative opposition parties.

Ji Seong-ho is one of those defectors. He lost an arm and a leg as a teenager in an accident on a coal train. Ji fled to the South in 2006. He appeared as a guest of American President Donald Trump at the State of the Union speech in early 2018 in Washington, D.C. He is now a human rights activist.

Ji said he belongs to the younger generation. He decided he should run for office after South Korea returned two North Korean fishermen in November. South Korean officials accused the two of killing their captain and 15 other crewmen.

Many defectors said the move was the same as giving the men a death sentence.

The same incident motivated Thae Yong-ho to enter politics. Thae is a former North Korean diplomat to London. He is one of the highest- level defectors to come to the South in many years.

Thae recently spoke to foreign reporters in Seoul. “I want to show to the North Korean people how freedom and democracy works in this country,” he said.

Thae has been very critical of North Korea since he moved to the South in 2016. More recently, he also has begun criticizing the South Korean government.

He wants better treatment for defectors, many of whom feel discriminated against. The former North Koreans also are among the poorest groups in South Korea.

Defectors are required to get three months of training to learn how to live on their own in a capitalist country like South Korea. But many do not get enough help.

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

The government said recently that the average defector’s monthly earnings had reached its highest level ever. But many say it is still not enough.

Thae says he wants to make it easier for defectors to receive aid to get an education. “I want to give more opportunities to those newly arrived middle-aged people who want to continue their education,” he said. He added that he is sure that the Koreas will be united one day.

“And if we are united again, who will go first to North Korea to do administration? It must be people who are from North Korea,” he said.

The former diplomat has faced severe criticism from North Korea since his defection in 2016.

Thae accuses some in South Korea of “trying to appease” the North by avoiding discussions of human rights. However, some experts warn that many defectors risk making their message too political.

Most defectors have aligned themselves with conservative political parties in South Korea. But conservatives have separated into several smaller parties since former President Park Geun-hye was removed from office on corruption charges in 2017.

I’m Mario Ritter, Jr.

William Gallo reported this story for VOA News. Mario Ritter Jr. adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

defector –n. a person who leaves their country, party or organization and goes to a competitor or enemy

neglected –adj. not given enough attention or care

motivated –adj. willing to do work or wanting to succeed

opportunity –n. an amount of time or a chance to do something

aligned –adj. joined, agreed with