SEOUL (Reuters) - Politics in South Korea is drawing high-profile North Korean defectors in numbers not seen before, aiming to remedy what they call failures by President Moon Jae-in’s administration to protect refugees from the North.
Two defectors have entered the fray for parliamentary elections in April as candidates of the main conservative opposition party, and about 200 launched a party this week that vows to counter Moon’s policies.
Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected in 2016, and Ji Seong-ho, whom U.S. President Donald Trump invited to Washington in 2018 to attend his State of the Union address, have both said they aim to amplify the voices of defectors.
“Regardless of whether they win the election, the defectors’ growing participation in politics could raise the need for discussions about how South Korean society represents them,” said Lee Nae-young, a professor at Korea University in Seoul.
In recent years, defector groups have complained that Moon’s administration was cutting funding, ignoring human rights, suppressing anti-Pyongyang activism, and sidelining prominent voices such as Thae, who once worked at a government think tank.
The complaints boiled over last year, when South Korea decided to forcibly repatriate without trial two North Korean sailors suspected of killing 16 fishermen, and many were upset at the apparent hunger deaths of a young defector and her son.
“This is very wrong, even if they are criminals,” Thae told a news conference in Seoul on Wednesday.
“If someone is shouting in the river ‘Save me!’...will you judge whether he is a criminal or not? If he is a criminal, will you give up your efforts and let them die in the river? No!”
The government had maintained at the time that the sailors were criminals who could pose a threat to society.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry has said it is pushing to improve settlement programmes for defectors, adopting measures this week to boost job opportunities and embrace them into South Korean society.
For the disabled Ji, 37, the trigger moment dates to May 2018, when a group of seven defectors he had been helping to bring to South Korea was caught in China, and he tried to secure their release.
South Korean diplomats were unhelpful, so Ji turned to officials at the White House, whom he had met while attending Trump’s speech just months earlier.
Even though the Americans were involved in talks at the time that would lead to the first summit between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, they helped Ji win the release of the defectors in a way that South Korea had not.
“That’s the moment I realised why it is important to elect a good leader and how politics matter,” Ji told Reuters.
Ji visited on Tuesday the newly opened office of a lawmaker’s former aide, Kim Soo-chul, who is now running in the election, to greet voters and introduce himself.
He hopes to lay the legal groundwork for more realistic settlement programmes for the 33,500-strong defector community, while advocating for underprivileged people, including South Koreans with disabilities.
“Without an arm and a leg, I am the symbol of North Korea human rights,” Ji said. “And as a young, disabled man, I can bridge the South and North, the young and older generations, and those who have disabilities and those who don’t.”
Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Sangmi Cha; Editing by Josh Smith and Clarence Fernandez