A former high-ranking North Korean diplomat who defected in 2016 on Wednesday vowed to improve legal protections for his fellow escapees if elected to South Korea’s National Assembly.
Speaking to media at Seoul’s Foreign Correspondents Club, Thae Yong-ho said the “trigger” for his decision to run as a candidate for the opposition conservative United Future Party (UFP) was last year’s controversial decision by the South Korean government to repatriate two North Koreans suspected of murder.
“I was much shocked by the news… I couldn’t sleep that night,” he said.
“Even though there is the Constitution, the interpretation of constitution is very different from people to people,” he continued, expressing his desire to strengthen laws protecting the human rights of North Korean escapees.
That repatriation in November last year drew criticism from human rights activists and the South Korean opposition, with some contesting the legality of the move.
If elected, the defector-turned-politician said he would push for legislation that would guarantee that “no matter what, whatever criminal cases, if North Koreans arrive here we should apply South Korean Constitution and law.”
He then said he would push to improve educational opportunities for defectors.
“I’m sure one day Korea will be united,” he said. “And if united again, who is going to go to North Korea and do administration? It must be those people who were from North Korea.”
“They need knowledge of legal concepts of democracy and administration,” he said, calling for greater government support for higher education for defectors of all ages.
On diplomacy and denuclearization, Thae said that U.S. policy on North Korea should “not be served for internal political agenda or Trump’s personal election time-sheet.”
Asking for U.S. “caution in future negotiation with North Koreans,” he reiterated his belief that Kim Jong Un “is not denuclearizing.”
In addition to laws on the repatriation of North Korean escapees, Thae also pointed to the need to improve defector welfare, as well as to more closely link the issue of DPRK denuclearization to inter-Korean relations and joint cooperation projects.
“The legal interpretation is vague on whether or not inter-Korean cooperation can be spearheaded at a time North Korea still possesses nuclear weapons — and without taking any measures towards denuclearization.”
Inter-Korean cooperation and exchange “should strictly be in connection with the progress in North Korean denuclearization,” he argued.
“Without such legal clauses, the [stance] of the South Korean government on the denuclearization issue can go back and forth with the change of government.”
Thae’s decision to run in the upcoming legislative election as a candidate for the United Future Party (UFP), previously known as the Liberty Korea Party (LKP), he said, was driven by the fact that it was “the only party that approached me.”
But he insisted that he would seek to cooperate will South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party if elected.
“If needed, I would make contacts with ruling party politicians and… help them understand the right way on how North Korea works or what their policy is,” he said.
Liberal politicians in South Korea, Thae said, often demonstrate an “unjust” reaction to issues related to North Korean human rights.
“The same people who fought for democratization and Korean human rights… when criticized about North Korean human rights issue, they close their mouth and say that it is not the right time to discuss it,” he said.
Thae also expressed concerns on South Korea’s past cooperation with North Korea at the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC).
“Wages for the Kaesong Industrial Complex workers was immensely low, even by international standards,” he said, arguing that seeing unification or inter-Korean projects as an opportunity for profit was to “see North Koreans as the subject of exploitation.”
North Koreans “should not be approached being told they are the [cheap] labor,” he said. “This was the exact same logic of Japanese colonialism.”
“The current unification discourse is going the wrong way. As a person from the North, it is regrettable, and I ask South Koreans to treat North Koreans like human beings.”
He then expressed his hopes that, as someone from the North, he will be a “different” voice compared to other liberal or conservative politicians.
“It is my dream, as a person from the North, to be able to persuade many people — no matter whether they are left or right.”
Seon-wook Kim contributed to this report
Edited by Oliver Hotham