Thae Yong-ho: From North Korean defector to South Korean politician
Despite fears about COVID-19’s impact on the National Assembly elections in April 2020, South Korea astonished all with a surprisingly high voter turnout of 66%, an enormous achievement even in normal times. What was more surprising, however, was the victory of two North Korean defectors – Ji Seong-ho and Thae Yong-ho, especially the latter, who is the highest-ranking North Korean defector ever, and the highest-ranking defector to ever win a seat in South Korea’s parliamentary election.
Thae’s journey to becoming a South Korean politician represents much more than a typical migrant running in an election in their host society. It is fundamentally different from, let’s say, a Chinese immigrant running in a US election, who might still be in some way linked to their homeland. Thae is a symbol of anti-North Korea resistance and seeks to push for reunification. His unique identity as a defector means that he represents not the voices of general economic migrants, but precisely asylum seekers and refugees who chose to flee North Korea for an inexhaustible list of reasons, ultimately in search of a better life. He gives North Korean defectors residing in the South a sense of hope and representation and, knowingly or unknowingly, encourages them to take a greater role in shaping South Korean policies.
Thae Yong-ho came from an elite family. At a young age, he had the opportunity to study abroad in China, where he learned English. He then studied at the Pyongyang University of Foreign Languages and eventually became a diplomat. Thae served as North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom for ten years before he defected with his wife and two sons in 2016. His defection made him so high-profile that he ran in the election under the pseudonym ‘Thae Gu-min’, a name he has been using since his defection to evade North Korea’s tracking. Another thing that makes Thae stand apart from other defectors such as Ji is that he won a popularly elected parliamentary seat in a specific constituency, the affluent Gangnam district of Seoul (known for the K-pop hit song Gangnam Style), while Ji was elected on the basis of proportional representation (in which a lower proportion of the vote is required to win).
While increased political participation of North Korean defectors in the South is definitely a reason to celebrate, one should be mindful that Thae’s winning does not necessarily mark a significant improvement in South Koreans’ acceptance of North Korean defectors. His running is a timely response to North Korea’s increased military intimidation as much as a deliberate, calculated political decision to draw more votes from the North Korean defector electoral base in South Korea. Given that the number of North Korean defectors residing in South Korea exceeds 33,000, it is unsurprising the United Future Party (UFP) – Thae’s party – deemed it worthwhile to designate a seat for a defector candidate. Moreover, the constituency to which Thae was elected, Gangnam, is the most expensive area in Seoul and in the whole of South Korea. It is home to a lot of traditional, conservative elites who would have voted for whomever the UFP put forward as their candidate, given their anti-communism ideology. Therefore, it is fair to say Thae’s winning might have little to do with the question of inclusiveness towards migrant or political minorities from the other side of the 38th parallel. Nonetheless, Thae’s anti-North Korean rhetoric has certainly garnered him a lot of support from South Koreans as well as the North Korean diaspora in South Korea.
Equally important to know is that although an overwhelming majority of North Korean defectors in South Korea are anti-North Korean, these defectors’ new identity as South Korean immigrants is not and should not be confined exclusively to anti-North Korean sentiment. It is dangerous to draw a general conclusion that all North Korean defectors in South Korea are anti-North Korean. Essentially, defectors are in search of a better life, but it is more of a human rights issue than a political issue. While many defectors choose to leave North Korea for fear of persecution, others may come to South Korea for basic necessities such as fresh water and food, or for better economic opportunities. Some defect because of the influence of South Korean popular culture and K-dramas, which serves as a pull factor that motivates defection. None of these reasons is solely political in nature, and North Korean defectors are a varied group with diverse opinions. Yet they all qualify as South Koreans not only because of their political stance, but because South Korea assumes an international duty to protect them and others who are deprived of basic human rights. It might be true that during the Cold War era, anti-communism in itself was already a quality that sufficed to determine one’s loyalty to a nation. But times have changed. South Korea has evolved to be a more pluralistic society that tolerates diverse political opinions. In such a society, defectors should be free to express their opinions about all issues, from reunification to public transportation.
From North Korean diplomat to South Korean politician, Thae Yong-ho has gone through tremendous struggles and pains and against all odds continues to pursue his career in politics. Not only did he seek to effect change in South Korean asylum policy towards North Koreans, for instance, advocating for the acceptance of all North Korean asylum seekers regardless of their criminal status; but he also hoped that his running would be a wake-up call to the elite in Pyongyang that something substantial could really happen if they turned their back on the authoritarian regime.
Thae’s victory in the election is by no means a game-changer for the whole political landscape of the Korean Peninsula. But it is certainly a first step to address the challenges of a lack of political participation and representation of North Korean defectors in South Korea. Whatever claims we make of his victory, we now must watch how Thae can make the best of his term to amplify defectors’ diverse voices and to influence the debate over South Korea’s reunification strategy. As he wrote in his autobiography 3층 서기실의 암호 (Cryptography of the third-floor secretariat):
‘South Korea is my new homeland and it gives me the gift of a new life and identity; now there is only one path ahead: reunification.’
Greta Lai is a Policy Research Officer at a Hong Kong-based NGO that helps migrant women and their Hong Kong-born children, where she researches and writes content on the maternity rights of migrant domestic workers. Greta has a master’s degree in International Migration and Public Policy from the London School of Economics. Within the field of migration, Greta is particularly interested in Chinese migration diplomacy and overseas North Korean identity formation. Greta has previously worked at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) as a conflict researcher, at the poverty reduction division at the United Nations Development Programme in Beijing, and at the International Crisis Group’s Northeast Asia office.