Magazine May 18, 2020, Issue

Up from North Korea

Ji Seong-ho (Jean Chung for the <I>Washington Post</I> via Getty Images)
A pair of defectors are elected in the South

On April 15, South Korea held a parliamentary election. There were many interesting things about this election — not least that it was held during a pandemic. And that turnout was high: 66 percent. This was the highest turnout for a parliamentary election in South Korea since 1992. Electoral officials took a number of precautions, requiring that voters wear masks, etc.

But nothing was more interesting than the election of Thae Yong-ho and Ji Seong-ho. They will take their seats when the new Assembly convenes on May 30. Their election was “truly a historic, seismic, shocking event,” says Henry Song. Why? Because Thae and Ji are North Korean defectors. Their election reverberates on both sides of the border.

Thae Yong Ho (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

Henry Song is a human-rights defender based in Washington, D.C. For many years, he has worked with North Korean defectors. He has his ear to the ground, in both North and South.

Thae was elected directly, in a constituency. He is the first North Korean defector ever to be so elected. Ji was elected by method of proportional representation. He is the second defector to be so elected. The first was Cho Myung-chul, an economics professor, in 2012.

When news came that Thae and Ji had been elected, there was jubilation in the defector community. That community numbers 33,500 in South Korea (a country of about 50 million). There are scattered others elsewhere.

The word “defector” confuses some people, understandably, because we are used to thinking of a defector as a government official or celebrity — a ballet dancer, let’s say — who goes over from an unfree country to a free one. But the North Korean government considers anyone who leaves a defector: a traitor to the state. People who have left North Korea think of themselves as having defected from the state that claimed ownership of them, body and soul.

In any event, “defector” is the word commonly used in English, although “escapee” or “refugee” will do as well.

Do South Koreans welcome their brothers from the North with open arms? There is ample testimony on this score: no. I talked about this with Park Yeonmi, one of the most prominent defectors, in 2014. (My piece on this extraordinary young woman was published in the November 17 issue of National Review that year: “Witness from Hell.”) I have spoken with her since the election of Thae and Ji.

“The South Koreans treat us like second-class citizens,” she says. “It will forever be a mystery to me. They are more sympathetic to people in Africa than they are to their fellow Koreans from the North. There’s nothing wrong with compassion for Africans or other people. But where is the compassion for persecuted, suffering Koreans?”

I ask Yeonmi whether South Koreans can distinguish North Koreans by their speech. Yes, she says. Also by their height: “We are three to four inches shorter than they are, because of malnutrition.”

The Left in South Korea bitterly resents defectors, especially ones who squawk about human rights and what they suffered back home. Thae Yong-ho — the new assemblyman — made this clear to me when I interviewed him last year. (That piece appeared in our July 8 issue.) There is great sympathy for the North Korean regime in South Korea, Thae has found. You can imagine how distressing this is for a defector.

By many, the defectors are regarded as nuisances, obstacles to peace, stirrers up of trouble. I think of a phrase from the final stages of the Cold War: “to poison the atmosphere of détente.” If you brought up abuses behind the Iron Curtain, for example, people might say, “Why are you poisoning the atmosphere of détente? Do you want war?” North Korean defectors face just the same.

In the last few years, they have grown restive, politically. They regard the incumbent South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, as soft on North Korea. They suspect him of naïveté and worse. They also think that his government is hostile to them, the defector community. They can recite a string of grievances and indignities. I will mention but three.

The government has severely cut aid to refugee groups and refugees themselves. Last year, the government secretly repatriated two North Korean fishermen who had asked for asylum. The circumstances of this episode are murky. Nothing so offends the defector community as a repatriation, especially a secret one.

But there was also this: A defector mother and her six-year-old son were found starved to death in their apartment. They had been denied government assistance. Routinely, people starve to death in North Korea. But in the South?

These things and assorted others pushed defectors into the streets, protesting their government. And it was in this atmosphere that Thae Yong-ho and Ji Seong-ho stood for office.

Thae was born in 1962, into the North Korean elite. He became a diplomat, eventually serving as deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom. He is an urbane, elegant fellow. He is also tremendously brave. He defected in 2016. The North Korean government called him “human scum” and accused him of the usual: embezzlement and child rape.

Last year, at the Oslo Freedom Forum, I asked him about his personal security. “I have a lot of worries,” he said, “but I am heavily protected when I am in South Korea. The South Korean government knows that I am No. 1 on the assassination list.” And “I know this will go on till the last day of the Kim regime.”

In the South Korean context, he is a conservative, favoring a market economy and a tough-minded policy toward the North — a realistic one, he would say. He is strongly anti-socialist and anti-Communist, and a sharp critic of Moon Jae-in’s government. Thae ran for the National Assembly in one of the most conservative constituencies in South Korea — one of the three constituencies of Gangnam.

Gangnam is a district of Seoul, the capital city, famous for wealth and glamour. It could hardly be less North Korean. In 2012, Gangnam became known all over the world when Psy, the pop artist, released his song “Gangnam Style.”

Thae Yong-ho beat his opponent — an experienced politician who had served four terms in the Assembly — by a wide margin. In his victory speech, Thae called Gangnam his “hometown.” He also said that he thought his historic election would prove “the first step toward reconciliation, harmony, and unification” between the two Koreas.

At the playing of the national anthem, he shed tears. The anthem — whose words were written in the 1890s — begins, “Until the day when Mount Paektu is worn away and the East Sea runs dry, may God protect and preserve our country!” The “East Sea” refers to the Sea of Japan. Mount Paektu is way up in what is now North Korea, on the border with China. It has always been considered the spiritual home of the Korean people. The anthem speaks of “the great Korean way.”

Park Yeonmi says that Thae’s election sends a powerful message to North Korea, and particularly to North Korean elites — to Thae’s former colleagues in the diplomatic corps, for example, who may be wavering on whether to jump. The message is: You can succeed in the South, if you take the risk. Diplomats have a greatly privileged position, a position beyond the imagining of ordinary North Koreans. But they know that they can be imprisoned or killed at any time. They have seen it happen to their colleagues repeatedly.

At the end of my conversation with Thae himself last year, I asked, “Do your former colleagues and other North Korean elites admire you, secretly?” He said yes. I asked, “Do you know this for sure?” He said, “Of course.”

The other defector who won election this year, remember, is Ji Seong-ho. About this, his fellow defectors are very, very excited. “He’s one of us,” says Yeonmi. What does she mean? He was a street kid, a homeless kid, a wretch — who will take his place in the prestigious National Assembly of South Korea.

I have met Ji several times and have never seen him without a big smile on his face. He is effortlessly charismatic. “He projects an air of ebullience,” I once wrote. “I can’t help thinking he is happy to be alive.”

Ji was born in 1982. His grandmother starved to death; his father was tortured to death — a typical North Korean story. He himself lost a leg and a hand when he passed out on a railroad track from hunger. He escaped from North Korea on homemade crutches. Once in South Korea, he became a Christian and started a human-rights group.

I have given the barest facts here, but I think Hollywood should make Ji’s life into a movie.

In 2018, Ji Seong-ho was a guest of President Trump for the State of the Union address. Sounding like presidents past, Trump said, “Seong-ho’s story is a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom.”

The truth is, Ji Seong-ho was never very interested in politics, in a partisan sense. He was a neutral, above the fray. But he was pushed into politics by the grievances and indignities that I mentioned, or alluded to, above. He was especially moved by the deaths of that mother and son, who starved in their apartment.

Despite the best efforts of the North Korean dictatorship, news dribbles into that country, via shortwave radio and other means. North Koreans will hear about Ji’s election, and have. The news is “shocking,” as Henry Song, the D.C.-based activist, emphasizes: one of them — a typical, downtrodden North Korean, and handicapped, at that — elevated to the legislature in a free country. A free and Korean country.

Together, Ji Seong-ho and Thae Yong-ho give hope to the North Korean minority in South Korea. The nation will see their faces on TV — and this will “humanize us,” says Park Yeonmi.

Some of us consider it an outrage that North Koreans need humanizing at all. No one, anywhere, has suffered more than they have. And from their number have come some of the most inspiring people we know.

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