SEOUL (KHON) — Last week, the big story coming out of South Korea was how the country held parliamentary elections amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The story with perhaps greater long-term significance, however, was how Thae Yong-ho, former minister at the North Korean Embassy in London who defected to South Korea with his family in 2016, won a seat representing a district in Gangnam, one of the wealthiest areas in the nation. Thae was one of the few wins for South Korea’s conservative United Future Party; the ruling Democratic Party of Korea won in an unprecedented landslide.
Though there are over 30,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea, Thae is now the first to be elected to represent a constituency seat.
So what does this mean, exactly?
“Many will be hoping he’ll serve as a voice for defectors in the South Korean parliament, who have traditionally felt under-represented and essentially ignored in South Korean society,” said Oliver Hotham, managing editor of NK News.
Rob York, program director for regional affairs at Pacific Forum, echoed the sentiment: “All North Koreans are considered Republic of Korea citizens, but treatment of defectors in South Korean society has demonstrated that this principle works better in theory than practice. But this illustrates that it does matter, and Thae can be an advocate for the defector community.”
Jeongmin Kim, Seoul Correspondent at NK News, explained: “Although Thae has a background being one of the most high-level North Korean officials who defected, North Korean defectors are still a minority group in South Korea with a lot of stigma and stereotypes attached to them. Thae winning a seat shows that many South Koreans are now indeed perceiving them as how Thae described himself: someone who ‘risked his life in search of freedom’ and democracy.’
“It was a smart move that Thae emphasized how he saw the failure of the socialist economy in the North, and that he takes the value of ‘liberal market economy’ seriously, running in one of the most conservative and wealthy districts in the country,” she continued. “However, we have to take something else in consideration when looking at it from the ‘defector’s win’ angle. Ji Seong-ho, another defector who ran, was not chosen as a candidate to represent a district. Also, the defectors’ party that made their debut — the South-North Unification Party — was one of the minor parties that won the least votes in the 21st general election. This means that the representation of defectors as a particular interest group or political group in South Korea — which was also new in last week’s election — is still very weak.”
Now that a former high-level North Korean official has attained a degree of political authority in South Korea, there are questions about how he might influence inter-Korean relations, as well as relations between North Korea and America. That possibility remains limited, however.
“He’s a member of the National Assembly for a party that was roundly trounced in this week’s election, so I see his actual influence on inter-Korean relations as being very limited, at least for the time being,” said Hotham. “Unification and foreign policy issues are usually much more the purview of the [South Korean Presidency], so the best he can really hope for is joining some influential National Assembly committees like intelligence or defense so he can get some media attention. Beyond that, Thae may find the day-to-day work of a lawmaker for an opposition party a little dull!”
York agreed: “Thae’s election to a National Assembly seat won’t change ties with the US or North Korea, because an individual seat doesn’t have that much power. If he were to gain a leadership position, or even win the presidency, he could certainly begin to influence the process, but whether he can achieve either of those remains to be seen.”
Kim expanded upon those notions: “Thae’s win will likely have little impact on the South-North relations. First, the Democratic Party won the majority of the parliament; second because most of the citizens and lawmakers at the moment do not appear to consider North Korea as the most important matter, with other crises on the peninsula such as the pandemic and the economy; and third, because it has usually been the executive rather than the legislative to shape decisions on North Korea policy.
“On the policy side, as a newly-elected lawmaker I don’t think he can make much difference. It’s not because of who he is, but more because of his party affiliation and what the political system is like in the South — along with the Democratic Party’s big win securing 60% of the parliamentary seats. Thae is expected to push for bills formalizing in the law the responsibility of the South Korean government to pursue denuclearization, or rejecting policies such as the ‘independence tourism’ that technically recognize North Korea as a state, which Thae has criticized.
“Despite how important Thae’s political debut means in South Korean political history, he is likely to be against any pro-engagement bills such as boosting inter-Korean economic cooperation as well.”
Thae’s historic win puts him in a predicament, one where he is surrounded by the expectations of the moment as well as restrained by the reality of it. Kim explained some of the challenges he will face as a lawmaker:
“He is already going through the first one: South Korean citizens’ stereotypes on North Korean defectors. People already started creating memes and jokes about how now Gangnam is represented by a former North Korean official. I know it’s a joke, but jokes say a lot about people’s psyche. With more extreme anti-DPRK citizens here — left or right — who don’t seem comfortable with a ‘North Korean’ representing a South Korean district, Thae will have to find a way to make himself seem more like a ‘South Korean’ who has adapted to a democratic political system.
“He also may feel the need to constantly prove himself to be an anti-North Korea regime conservative. Another big part of his campaign was that he ‘knows better than anyone else’ about the North Korean regime, and that his experience as former DPRK diplomat will make him a capable lawmaker knowledgeable of national security issues. This, too, will be challenged by the Democratic Party opponents that also have decades of experience directly negotiating with the North.
Finally, one of Thae’s biggest ambitions — and the trigger for making his debut as South Korean lawmaker — was North Korean and defector human rights issues. He will have to fight with both the ruling party and the UFP. Defector human rights issues have often been sidelined in South Korea amid denuclearization negotiation and dialogue with Pyongyang, and furthermore, some of his views on helping North Korean citizens may differ from what other conservative lawmakers tend to think. “
Despite those and other challenges he will certainly face, there is room for optimism.
“He offers something new for South Korean politics and society in that he’s not a product of their 1970s and 80s culture wars,” York said. “You can’t credibly accuse him of wanting to revive Yushin, and it’s going to be awkward in the extreme for Minjoo to try and cast aspersions on his North Korean background when they’re the party that prioritizes better inter-Korean ties.”
“He’s pledged to work to improve the welfare system for defectors here — something both parties agree needs to happen,” said Hotham. “Hopefully he can find some cross-party consensus on that. We’ll have to see.”
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