The issue regarding North Korean defectors has always been a very divisive one. As accessing North Korea remains difficult, first-hand testimonies and reports from defectors have become a valuable source of information to prove the degree of inhumanity of the Pyongyang regime. Yet, several times, despite the reality of North Korea’s human rights abuses, the anecdotes of defectors proved inaccurate and exaggerated, as confirmed in the cases of Shin Dong-hyuk, Lee Soon-ok and Kwon Hyuk, just to make few examples. These inconsistencies notwithstanding, the number of North Korean defectors who fled to the South has been constantly growing, with a sharp increase in the last 25 years, not only because of political oppression, but mainly for acute food shortages in North Korea. Once in the South, these people are gradually being integrated in society and provided with different forms of support.
The growing presence of North Koreans in the South – more than 33,000 according to the December 2019 Korea Hana Foundation survey – has had different effects, including demands to be politically represented in the country which welcomed them. These demands have recently brought a group of North Korean defectors to form a political party called the “South-North Unification Party”, which does not only testify that Seoul’s efforts to integrate the defector community into society delivers encouraging results, but also that the defector community feels sufficiently assimilated to participate in politics. According to many refugees, however, North Korean defectors in South Korea are still neglected, and getting political representation in the National Assembly can thus contribute to modifying these feelings. However, the electoral reform law enacted at the end of last year – reducing the voting age and changing the distribution of the 47 proportional seats, favouring minor parties – produced a mushrooming of new parties that target specific issues, hoping to gain attention if not a seat: the South-North Unification Party is one of the most interested.
Apart from this party, however, the political participation of North Korean defectors appears to be the real innovation brought about by April elections in South Korea. Two former defectors – Ji Seong-ho and Thae Yong-ho – are both running for a seat in the National Assembly for the conservative opposition “United Future Party” (UFP). The two have completely different backgrounds: the former comes from a poor family and, as a teenager, lost his left arm and leg in a train accident in North Korea while trying to steal coal; in 2018 he made his appearance at President Trump’s State of the Union address, hoisting his crutches to testify the brutality of the North Korean regime. Thae, in contrast, was a diplomat serving at North Korea’s embassy in London before defecting to South Korea with his family in 2016, and starting to harshly criticize Pyongyang, which in return has labelled him “human scum”. Described as the highest-ranking North Korean official to defect, Thae has recently published his memoirs with the title “Password of the Third Floor Secretary Room”, which has rapidly become a bestseller in South Korea. Even though the two men have decided to run for elections to give a message of hope and to show North Koreans how democracy works, there were a couple of specific events that triggered their political zeal. Last November, in fact, two North Korean fishermen sailed into South Korean waters, but after the South Korean navy got hold of them, Seoul decided for their repatriation back to Pyongyang because the two were suspected of having murdered 16 of their fellow crew members and dumped their bodies overboard. Seoul’s decision to send the two fisherman back without hesitation, despite there was no clear evidence of their guiltiness and regardless of the fact that between the two Koreas it does not exist a clear extradition agreement outraged human rights activists, who strongly protested against the lack of humanity showed by the South Korean government for this hasty repatriation. This episode happened only few months after a North Korean refugee mother and her 6-year-old son were found dead – most likely by starvation – in their Seoul-area apartment. Events like this in one of the richest countries in the world are deemed unacceptable, and President Moon was highly criticized by the defector community for his supposed hypocrisy, being his motto “Putting People First” but in reality simply trying to appease Kim Jong Un.
Both Ji and Thae have been very critical of the current attitude of the South Korean government towards Pyongyang. According to them, in fact, Moon is more interested in implementing his “engagement” policy – although, in their opinion, this has produced little results and has disproportionately raised the costs borne by Seoul – than seriously focusing on human rights issues. What is more, as some of them argue, it could be beneficial for Seoul’s attitude towards North Korea since it lacks consistency being altered every time the administration changes. Against this backdrop, beyond clarifying that Kim Jong Un has no real intentions to give up his nuclear arsenal, they argue that humanitarian issues (instead of economic engagement with the North) should be the focus of South Korean and US policies. In addition, they ask for a better treatment of defectors – many of whom feel discriminated against – in terms of training (i.e., becoming accustomed to their new life), earnings and opportunities. Although the objective of drawing attention to human rights situations in the North and living conditions for defectors in the South is a noble cause, Ji and Thae’s candidatures still produce a dense cloud of scepticism. First of all, the “humanitarian” card has never worked with Pyongyang, which has constantly rebutted the international community’s remarks on human rights violation. This is not to say that humanitarian issues are not important, but in case one aims at engaging North Korea (that implies being open to start a dialogue) there must be a clear list of priorities, and human rights abuses cannot be at the top, otherwise the whole process would stop. Similarly, their vision regarding inter-Korean cooperation, which “should strictly be in connection with the progress in North Korean denuclearization” is another deja-vu which has so far produced little results. Pyongyang is not prone to denuclearizeand, if one continues to make every possible development dependent on nuclear dismantlement, the possibility of concrete failure becomes high.
Secondly – if elected – it remains to be seen if and to what extent Ji and Thae’s views would accurately reflect the position of the other defectors, which tends to remain a mystery. By joining the ranks of the conservative party, defectors risk to “over-politicize” their message, which, essentially, aims to constantly demonize the North. The risk is to become entrenched into a solipsistic mantra from which every dissenting voice or perspective is banned.
Thirdly, even though there is no reason not to believe in the two defectors’ genuine stance, they could also have been pushed by their personal (and legitimate) political aspirations. Yet, when asked the reason why he had chosen to run for the UFP, Thae replied that it was “the only party that approached me”, thus it seems highly likely for his personal ambitions to count. If that was the case, though, the risk is that in the future the North Korean issue could become a pointless “exercise in style” rather than one of Seoul’s crucial political issues.
 Shin Dong-hyuk is the author of the bestseller “Escape from Camp 14”: parts of his account have proved to be inaccurate and inconsistent; Lee Soon-ok’s description of DPRK’s horrifying actions against Christians in a political prison proved false; Kwon Hyuk maintained he had witnessed human experiments in political prisons as an intelligence officer, but later South Korean news agency, Yonhap, argued he never had access to such information.