Editor’s Note: The below is an expanded version of a piece that appears in the current issue of National Review.
NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE O n April 15, South Korea held a parliamentary election. This was in the middle of a pandemic, of course. And turnout was high: 66 percent. This was the highest turnout for a parliamentary election in South Korea since 1992.
Officials took a number of precautions, requiring that voters wear masks, etc. To read an account of the election, go here.
South Korea has a unicameral legislature — the National Assembly — with 300 members. Two hundred fifty-three of them are elected directly, in constituencies. The rest are elected through a system of proportional representation. Elections are held every four years.
Last month, the Democratic Party triumphed at the ballot box. This is the “in” party, the party of the incumbent president, Moon Jae-in. As in America, the Democrats of South Korea are left-leaning. The Democrats were expected to suffer at the ballot box this year. But then the pandemic came, and voters apparently gave the government credit for handling it well.
When the new Assembly convenes on May 30, the Democrats will have a dominant 180 seats. The conservative opposition — the United Future Party — will have just 103. (The remaining seats will be held by members of small parties and independents.)
So, it was a happy election for the Left, a sad one for the Right. Except that Thae Yong-ho and Ji Seong-ho were elected. They are conservative standouts. In the words of Henry Song, their election was “truly a historic, seismic, shocking event.” How so? Thae and Ji are North Korean defectors. And their elevation to the National Assembly reverberates on both sides of the border.
The man I have quoted, Henry Song, is a human-rights defender 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 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 won, 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, or a baseball player — 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.”
Make no mistake: There are plenty of South Koreans who treat defectors compassionately, even as there are compassionate members of every society. One should not paint with too broad a brush. But, to say it again, there is ample testimony from defectors about their experiences in the South, and this testimony should not be ignored or minimized.
The South Korean Left bitterly resents defectors — especially ones who squawk about human rights and what they suffered back home. Thae Jong-ho, the new assemblyman, made this clear to me when I interviewed him last year. Let me quote from the piece I wrote:
Around the world, people view the Korean War (1950–53) as a war between the North and the South. In South Korea, says Thae, many people view it, instead, as a war between Left and Right. And there is deep sympathy for the Left.
One more paragraph:
In South Korea, Thae meets people on the left who struggled for democracy and human rights in their country, when it was under dictatorship. Yet many of these same people are reluctant to talk about democracy and human rights for North Koreans. They want to change the subject.
By many people, 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?”
Park Yeonmi, among others, finds this very familiar. North Korean defectors face exactly the same.
Many times, Yeonmi has heard South Koreans extol the alleged socialist virtues of the North. I say to her, “Do you ever want to tell them, ‘If you think North Korea is so great, why don’t you go live there?’” Oh, yes, she does. But, like everyone else, these people prefer to live in a free, democratic, and prosperous society.
In the last few years, North Korean defectors 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 list some of those.
The government has severely cut aid to refugee groups and groups that help refugees. It has also slashed direct assistance to refugees. The government is pretty frank about this. One official said, “North Korean defectors might not enjoy the same benefits that they enjoyed during the two previous conservative governments.”
In April 2018, Thae Yong-ho was giving a speech to a human-rights conference. Intelligence agents prevented a television network from filming the speech. They also prevented — forcibly prevented — Thae from taking questions from the press. This was in advance of an inter-Korean summit, and the government apparently did not want to rile the North.
Later in the year, a reporter, Kim Myong-song, was prevented from covering another inter-Korean meeting, at the border village of Panmunjom. He works for the Chosun Ilbo, a major paper, and is a North Korean defector. Apparently, the government did not want his presence to provoke or displease the North. “I felt so betrayed and angry,” Kim said later.
In December 2019, something very, very strange happened: The government repatriated two North Korean fishermen who had asked for asylum. The government did so secretly. It has now been several months, and the circumstances of the episode are still 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 in Seoul. They had been denied government assistance. Routinely, people starve to death in North Korea. But in the South?
These things, accumulated, pushed defectors into the streets, protesting their government.
I have to ask: Can you imagine being born and brought up in the North Korea, and living, one day, in a country where you can protest the government? And where you can even form your own political party?
Defectors formed a party called “South-North Unification.” Its secretary-general, Kim Joo-il, said, “We were always considered minorities and aliens,” but “North Korean defectors are now the future of unification.”
Thae Yong-ho and Ji Seong-ho did not run for the Assembly in the South-North Unification Party. They are sympathetic, obviously. But there was no path to victory through this party, not in 2020. They found their paths.
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.
Above, I discussed the use of the word “defector.” Thae is a defector in the traditional sense. Indeed, he is one of the highest-ranking officials ever to defect from North Korea.
At the Oslo Freedom Forum last year, I asked Thae 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, Thae 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, a district 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.”
Talking about Gangnam with me, Park Yeonmi makes a statement that I find charming, as well as true: “Gangnam would not exist without capitalism and entrepreneurship. The market is what makes Gangnam possible. The people who live there know that, and Mr. Thae knows it, too. He had to live under the opposite: Communism and socialism.”
Thae beat his opponent — a veteran Democrat, Kim Sung-gon, who had served four terms in the Assembly — by a wide margin. After the votes were counted, Thae noted the historic nature of his election: “In the 70-year history of division, a North Korean lawmaker has never before been elected from a constituency.” He then said, “I think this is the first step toward reconciliation, harmony, and unification between the two Koreas.”
At the playing of the national anthem, Thae shed tears. The words of the anthem were written in the 1890s, and they begin, “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 the North Korean elites, from whom Thae sprang. His former colleagues in the diplomatic corps, for instance, may be wavering about whether to defect themselves. The message of Thae’s election is: You can succeed in the South, if you take the risk.
Yeonmi was no elite. She did not escape North Korea in search of freedom, democracy, and all that, she tells me: “I escaped in search of a bowl of rice.” She had nothing to lose, and neither do millions of others. North Korean elites, on the other hand, have a lot to lose. They have a privileged position. Nevertheless, they know their lives are precarious. They can be imprisoned or killed at any time. They have seen it happen to people like themselves, over and over.
I should quote a little more from my piece on Thae Yong-ho last year:
His goal, or dream, is nothing less than the end of the regime. He would like to see the Korean Peninsula reunited on democratic terms. Does he have a strategy? Yes. First and foremost, he wants to encourage North Korean elites to recognize what they surely know or suspect already, in their doublethinking: The Kim regime is corrupt, nasty, and lying.
He knows what it’s like to be a North Korean elite. He was one. Eventually, this doublethinking will tip over into a more resolute thinking . . .
(“Doublethink,” you remember, is the brilliant coinage of Orwell — a useful one, too. It is the condition of many in an unfree society. Part of you has a fealty to the regime. This part wants to believe, or needs to believe. Another part has doubts, which are very unsettling and scary.)
At the end of our conversation, I asked Thae, “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.”
Now to the other defector who won election this year: Ji Seong-ho. About his election, defectors are beyond excited. “He’s one of us,” says Park Yeonmi. That is a striking phrase. It is familiar in Anglo-American politics. There is a biography of Nixon called “One of Us.” There is a biography of Thatcher called “One of Us.”
What does Yeonmi mean? Ji Seong-ho is a street kid, a homeless kid, a wretch. Or rather, he was. “He never went to Kim Il-sung University,” says Yeonmi. That is the elite university in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. In fact, Ji “has never even been to Pyongyang.” There is no freedom of movement within North Korea, Yeonmi explains.
“You know what North Koreans dream about when they dream of traveling?” she continues. “They don’t dream about going to China or Europe and all that. They can’t even go to the next town without permission. But they may dream about going to Pyongyang.”
There is “a big gap between the elites and the countryside people,” says Yeonmi. And she repeats: “Seong-ho is just one of us.” He is not bitter but instead grateful, Yeonmi observes. “He has such a big heart for his countrymen.” And now he is going to the National Assembly of South Korea.
I have met Ji Seong-ho 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.
With his mother and sister, he had hopped onto a train. They were stealing coal, in order to barter it for food. When he was jumping from one car to the next, Ji lost consciousness, owing to hunger. He fell between the cars onto the tracks.
Eventually, he escaped North Korea — on homemade crutches. He made it to the South, where he became a Christian and started a human-rights groups.
I have given the barest facts of Ji Seong-ho’s life story. In my view, that story should be made into a movie — perhaps culminating with Ji’s entrance into the National Assembly. And wouldn’t it be something if the movie made it into North Korea, which it would?
In 2018, Ji 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.”
Until recently, Ji was never very interested in politics — politics in a partisan sense. He was neutral, above the fray. But he was pushed into politics by the grievances and indignities I listed above. He was especially moved by the deaths of the defector mother and her young son, in that Seoul apartment.
Despite the best efforts of the North Korean dictatorship, news gets 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, elevated to the legislature of a free country. A free and Korean country.
Currently, Song is working with a group called “Kuen Saem,” which sends care packages into North Korea — packages that include, not only rice and such, but also information. To read about this project, consult an article from the Voice of America, here.
Together, Ji Seong-ho and Thae Yong-ho give hope to the North Korean minority in South Korea. They are heroes, pioneers (of the political variety), and role models.
Hoopla aside, the two men “will have their work cut out for them,” says Song. They will have to deal with the great expectations placed on them by their fellow defectors. They will be inundated with requests for favors. Also, they will have to deal with the Moon administration, and its tenderness toward North Korea. And with leftists in the National Assembly.
Then there is security: Surely they will need a lot of it — not just Thae, who has long had it, but Ji, too — because they are a standing, infuriating rebuke to the dictatorship up north.
Park Yeonmi points out that Thae and Ji will be on South Korean television a lot. South Koreans will see their faces, hear their stories, listen to their points of view. Thae and Ji will help “humanize us,” says 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.