OPINION

[Editorial] Proof of democracy

By Korea Herald

A North Korean defector’s bid for a parliamentary seat carries significant consequences

  • Published : Feb 12, 2020 - 16:59
  • Updated : Feb 13, 2020 - 17:19

President Moon Jae-in’s administration has been criticized for being less supportive of North Korean defectors here than its conservative predecessors.

Since taking office in 2017, it has been preoccupied with pursuing reconciliation with the repressive regime in Pyongyang, feeling uneasy about defector groups’ outright criticism of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and reducing financial support for them.

Moon’s persistent efforts to embrace Kim, including three summits in 2018, have not led to any meaningful progress in denuclearizing the North. Rather, Pyongyang has rejected any form of talks with Seoul over the past year, ridiculing Moon for trying to assume a “presumptuous” role to mediate between Kim and US President Donald Trump.

This derisive stance seems to reflect the North’s frustration with Moon’s inability to persuade Trump to ease sanctions against the recalcitrant regime without substantial steps toward its complete denuclearization.

In his New Years press conference in January, Moon said his government would consider allowing South Koreans to make individual trips to the North.

His new initiative seems aimed at alleviating Pyongyang’s discontent and trumpeting improved inter-Korean ties ahead of the general election on April 15. It may be his ultimate wish that Kim would visit Seoul as agreed earlier between them before the election.

The spread of a new strain of coronavirus that originated from the Chinese city of Wuhan in December appears to be overshadowing the near-term effectiveness of permitting individual tours let alone the possibility of Kim traveling to Seoul this spring.

Kim has been absent from public view for more than two weeks apparently out of fears about the new coronavirus, blocking the North’s border with China to prevent the epidemic from reaching his country.

The Moon government’s approach to Pyongyang will be subject to strong criticism by a high-profile North Korean defector who will run in the upcoming parliamentary election as a candidate of the conservative main opposition Liberty Korea Party.

Tae Young-ho, a former senior North Korean diplomat who defected to the South along with his family in 2016, officially confirmed his election bid in a news conference Tuesday.

A day earlier, Kim Hyong-o, who heads a panel to select Liberty Korea Party’s candidates, said Tae had joined the party to contest in a Seoul constituency.

The chances of him being elected to the parliament will be high if he is granted the party’s “strategic ticket” to contest in one of the affluent districts in southern Seoul, which are its traditional strongholds.

He would be the first North Korean defector to be elected directly by voters to the legislature. In 2012, another North Korean defector won a parliamentary seat on a proportional representation ticket of the Saenuri Party, the predecessor of the Liberty Korea Party.

As a lawmaker, Tae, who served as the North’s deputy ambassador to London before his defection, would be in a position to make his voice heard more effectively and extensively on how to address matters concerning the North.

Despite the initial upbeat mood, he predicted that Pyongyang would never give up its nuclear arsenal, and his prediction has proven right.

His election would have a far greater impact on the North Korean regime and its people than his defection.

As he said in the news conference, his election from a parliamentary constituency would become proof of free and representative democracy in the South in the eyes of North Korean elites and people. Special attention needs to be paid to his security during his campaign.

Based on his experience, expertise and firm resolve, he could help craft out relevant policies to handle Pyongyang and prepare for the eventual unification of the two Koreas.

As a legislator, he might be better positioned to tackle the dire human rights conditions in the North.

His election would also serve to increase calls for strengthened support for North Korean defectors here, who now number nearly 40,000.

The number of North Korean defectors who arrived in the South last year reached 1,047, marking the lowest since 2001.

The dwindling number stems partly from toughened border checks but also seems affected by increasing concerns about the possible failure to settle in the South. Harsh living conditions faced by some North Korean defectors were brought to attention last July, when a female defector and her 6-year-old son were found dead at their home in Seoul, sparking suspicion that they might have starved to death months earlier.