Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent those of NK News.
With the general election less than two months away, everyone in South Korean politics is jockeying for the most valuable commodity in modern politics: attention.
In Seoul, where true primaries are rare and party elites hold disproportionate sway in deciding nominations, the months leading up to a general election are colloquially known as “acquisition season.” Each major party parades before the media a series of celebrity newcomers who will stand for election, in a desperate scramble for positive headlines (a process that resembles the European soccer transfer window more than anything).
Recently, the Liberty Korea Party (LKP) – Seoul’s main conservative opposition – made perhaps the biggest splash of the season by announcing that they would nominate former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho to stand for election in April.
Note: as I write this, LKP has announced that it will absorb two minor conservative parties and rename itself. As there is not yet an official English translation for the new name, and because the change is recent enough that nobody will understand what I’m talking about if I use it, I will not.
The nomination of any North Korean defector for a legislative seat is rare enough to be newsworthy, but Thae’s is nothing short of historic. LKP has indicated that they intend to nominate Thae to run in an individual constituency, not through the party lists.
This distinction is significant. Every voter in the general election casts two ballots: one for an individual to represent their district, and another for a national party. The highest vote-winner in each district is elected through the first vote, but parties also receive additional seats based on the second vote that they subsequently distribute to pre-selected candidates on a party list.
It’s an open secret that not all lawmakers are created equal: those elected with constituencies have far more influence than their party list counterparts. Even by the extreme “party decides” standards of South Korean electoral politics, party list lawmakers are uniquely beholden to leadership: they lose their seats as a matter of course if they leave the party, who in turn has no obligation to re-nominate them in the next election.
Quite to the contrary, most party list nominees are “one-and-done,” famous names who are nominated once for the positive buzz, serve a single term where they are mostly expected to raise their hand and support the party line, and then are replaced by a new group of fresh faces when the next election rolls around.
Constituency lawmakers enjoy far more independence, as they can use their popularity back home – and the possibility that they may defect or run as an independent if mistreated – as leverage. Almost every prominent politician in Korea today hails not from the party lists, but from independent constituencies. Constituency nominations, in turn, are usually reserved for these established names and their handpicked successors.
SHIFTING CONSERVATIVE STRATEGY
Given this, the fact that Thae has secured a constituency nomination by the second largest political party in Korea is incredibly significant. Moreover, Thae is not getting just any constituency: reports are that he will run in one of the three districts of Gangnam, an affluent conservative stronghold and possibly the only part of increasingly left-leaning Seoul in which the LKP is still favored.
In his political debut, Thae is being jumped to the front of the line ahead of scores of ambitious old men thirsting for one of the most coveted prizes in all of conservative politics. There could be no clearer signal that the LKP intends to make him front and center in its electoral strategy going forward.
Although defectors would seemingly be natural allies for conservatives and their harder-line stance towards North Korea, as a group they have traditionally had very little influence. Mainstream conservative politicians, in turn, have been woefully inadequate in terms of advocating for defector rights.
In November 2019, two defectors who had sailed across the NLL were forcibly repatriated to North Korea on the basis that they were suspected of murder – a decision made directly by the Blue House in less than three days, with no due process or access to counsel for the accused. This was a watershed moment for many in the defector community, who saw the repatriation as evidence that the government would happily sacrifice the rights of defectors for better relations with the North.
Despite this, the LKP could muster little more than perfunctory outrage, and the issue was mostly forgotten within days. Thae’s rapid elevation – and the fact that he specifically mentioned the November repatriation as the motivation for his decision – signals that at the very least defector advocacy will be taken much more seriously in mainstream conservative politics moving forward.
Given that defectors are the one disadvantaged minority in Korea who are entirely reliant on conservative politicians to speak on their behalf, this is a welcome change (Ji Song-ho – the defector who famously held up his crutches in triumph at President Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address – will also be joining the LKP alongside Thae, although it’s unclear as of now if he will be running in April).
Although defectors would seemingly be natural allies for conservatives and their harder-line stance towards North Korea, as a group they have traditionally had very little influence
Conservative politicians, in turn, also have much to gain from giving defectors a voice within their coalition. The traditional conservative ambivalence towards rapprochement with Pyongyang has long been justified based on the purported threat of a communist takeover, but this purely ideological appeal has become less effective with a more pragmatic younger generation for whom Cold War rivalries are less than a distant memory.
Conservative policy towards North Korea needs a new North Star, and the newfound prominence of Thae and other defectors suggests that the LKP may be planning to distinguish themselves from their liberal rivals by a renewed focus on human rights issues.
We may be seeing the first steps towards a long-awaited shift, where conservatives stop arguing that North Korea cannot be trusted because it is communist, and start arguing that it cannot be trusted because it is authoritarian.
Whether the stuffy old former prosecutors who dominate the party’s leadership (many of whom made their careers as anti-communist enforcers under South Korea’s military dictatorships) can pull that off remains to be seen.
But setting aside the realpolitik of it all, Thae’s entrance into politics also gives the South Korean electorate the opportunity to look inwards at far more fundamental questions. Thae is not just any defector, but the highest-ranking member of the North Korean ruling elite living in South Korea.
While there is no indication that he was a direct participant in any of the worst excesses of the Kim regime, he is nevertheless someone who spent much of his adult life as a willing participant in service to the most anti-democratic political system on Earth.
Given this, there’s a fair question as to whether that should disqualify him from the prominent role in democratic government which he is being groomed for. This is not to discount the exemplary work Thae has performed in service of South Korea since defecting, nor his undeniable courage in stepping into public life despite constant, credible threats of North Korean assassination.
Rather, it is a simple acknowledgment of reality: there is something viscerally uncomfortable about the idea of the man who once occupied the infamous Third-Floor Secretariat moving into the halls of the National Assembly.
Thae is not just any defector, but the highest-ranking member of the North Korean ruling elite living in South Korea
This is probably not an issue that will arise in this April’s election. Conservatives will avoid any hard questions lest they get in the way of their new rising star. Liberals, in turn, are not exactly in a position to criticize anyone for a history of working with the Kim regime.
Nevertheless, it is a long-term question that will have serious implications for the future of Korea: to what extent are South Koreans willing to give prominent roles to former North Korean elites in a post-unification society? Will North Korean politicians be permitted to run for office? Will North Korean generals be given new commissions?
And looking past just individuals, what level of integration with the fundamentally illiberal institutions of the North is the South prepared to accept as the cost of peaceful reunification?
Nobody wants to see the peninsula plunged into war, but a negotiated merger of the two systems will inevitably force them to bleed into one another to some extent, and Koreans are already well aware of what happens when less-than-desirable elements of the ancien regime are thoughtlessly carried over to a newly established polity: the post-liberation failure to exclude prominent imperial collaborators from government posts continues to haunt the legitimacy of many in Seoul’s political elite to this day.
If South Koreans are serious about reunification, even just as a long-term aspirational goal, Thae’s political debut may be a good opportunity to start thinking about exactly where we should draw the line, a truly fundamental question that makes the future of conservative politics seem quite trivial in comparison.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham