Thae Yong-ho, a former high-ranking North Korean diplomat who defected in 2016, will run for office in South Korea’s upcoming legislative elections in April, an official from the country’s main opposition party said Monday.
Thae, who has become an outspoken activist and public speaker since coming to South Korea with his family almost four years ago, will stand as a candidate for the conservative Liberty Korea Party (LKP).
“I think he would probably be the first North Korean defector” to run for a constituency seat in the National Assembly, LKP official Kim Hyong-o was quoted as having said by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency on Monday, hailing Thae’s commitment to “genuine reunification.”
“He is someone who risked his life to find freedom here,” he added. “He is someone who can propose the road of… peace from the position of the thousand separated families and 25 million North Korean compatriots.”
The former diplomat is expected to stand for an election in a Seoul constituency, with local media speculating he may choose to run in Gangnam — a strong center of support for the conservative right in an otherwise liberal-leaning city.
Asked about concerns that Thae — who requires extensive government protection given his status — would find his position as a lawmaker limiting due to his need for a security detail inside the bustling National Assembly building in Seoul, the LKP official reportedly insisted that “the problem has been resolved.”
Thae had previously served as North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the UK.
Following his defection from the DPRK’s British embassy in 2016, Thae worked for a South Korean intelligence agency-linked think tank, as is common with high-profile defectors hailing from elite North Korean circles.
But he subsequently resigned from that organization amid a change of government in Seoul, with some speculating that the move was linked to disagreements with the new administration over its policy of engagement and rapprochement with Pyongyang.
He then published a widely acclaimed, best-selling memoir about his time as a diplomat — “Cypher of the third-floor secretariat” — later appearing on the NK News podcast to discuss the book and his views on the North Korea issue.
He has also become an increasingly outspoken critic of the current center-left administration of President Moon Jae-in, aligning himself with right-wing figures tied to the now-jailed former President Park Geun-hye.
South Korean citizens are set to elect lawmakers from both proportional party lists and to individual constituencies on April 15, in a vote widely seen as a public referendum on the performance of the Moon administration just a year before presidential elections.
The nomination of such a high-profile former North Korean official to stand in South Korea’s parliament for a constituency is notable, though he will not be the first defector lawmaker in recent years: Cho Myong-chol, who fled the DPRK in the 1990s, previously served as a representative of the conservative Saenuri party from 2012 to 2016.
Jeongmin Kim contributed translation assistance
Edited by Jacob Fromer