Two North Korean defectors take seats in South Korean parliament

Two North Korean defectors take seats in South Korean parliament

Two North Korean defectors of very different personal backgrounds have won seats in South Korea’s parliament, signaling potentially rising political influence in Seoul for individuals who’ve fled the North’s dictatorship.

Thae Yong-ho, a 58-year-old former North Korean elite who was once second-in-command at Pyongyang’s embassy in London and who defected in 2016, won a conservative party seat from Seoul’s affluent Gangnam district in Wednesday’s parliamentary elections.

Ji Seong-ho, a 38-year-old whom South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper described as a defector from an impoverished North Korean family, also took a conservative party seat through proportional representation — an appointment based on system-wide vote counts.

It is not unprecedented for a North Korean defector to enter South Korean parliament. Cho Myong-chul became the first back in 2012, although he also was appointed by proportional vote.

What is new about Wednesday’s developments is that two defectors of very different backgrounds took seats and that Mr. Thae became the first ever to be elected as a constituency lawmaker — meaning he was chosen directly by South Korean voters as their representative, rather than winning a so-called proportional representation seat.

Mr. Thae, Mr. Ji and Mr. Cho all embrace conservative political positions that advocate hard-line postures toward the North Korean dictatorship that they fled. South Korean liberals, including those of current President Moon Jae-in’s ruling Democratic Party, generally regard such with suspicion and broadly tend to push a more conciliatory posture advocating engagement with the regime in Pyongyang.

The Democratic Party and a satellite party it created to win its own proportional representative seats scored a resounding majority victory in Wednesday’s elections that the Associated Press reported had the highest turnout in nearly three decades, despite the coronavirus forcing social distancing at polling places.

Chosun Ilbo, meanwhile, reported that Mr. Thae ran using his new name Thae Gu-min, which means “saving people” in Chinese characters, and wore a bulletproof vest during his campaign for fear of a terror attack. He reportedly won 58.4 percent of the votes in Gangnam for the conservative United Future Party.

Mr. Ji was appointed to represent the Future Korea Party, a minor conservative proxy. Chosun described him as having once been an orphan in a mining town in North Korea’s northern Hamgyong Province who was 14 when he tried to steal coal in order to survive but was hit by a train and lost his hand and leg.

Having later escaped North Korea in 2006, he reportedly made his way to the South on foot and has since emerged as a major advocate in Seoul for North Korean human rights. Chosun noted that Mr. Ji gave a speech during President Trump’s 2018 State of the Union Address.

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