North Korean defectors Thae Yong-ho and Ji Seong-ho have got off to an uneasy start as freshmen lawmakers of South Korea, facing opposition from their liberal counterparts for inaccurate presumptions on the health status of Kim Jong-un.
They need to perform their new jobs in a productive way if they want to pay back any special favors they enjoy here because of their unique backgrounds at this time, when many other refugees from the North are complaining of general public indifference bordering on discrimination.
The long history of the Cold War that affected the Korean Peninsula, which still continues, has produced quite a few North Korean defector celebrities. Past conservative administrations took advantage of their propaganda value. Two of them left particularly sorry memories for me since I had a chance to closely watch them while working as a newspaper reporter. They were Li Su-geun, former vice president of the North Korean Central News Agency, and Major Pak Sun-guk, a fighter pilot of the North Korean Air Force.
Li was executed after unsuccessfully trying to escape from Seoul two years after he crossed the border to go back to the North or to a third country; Pak has completely disappeared into private life. Kim Jip, reporter from the now-defunct TBC Radio-TV who made a big scoop of Li’s defection via the “Joint Security Area” died last week at the age of 92.
South Korean intelligence officials who captured Li in Vietnam accused him of having made a false defection to infiltrate into the upper level of the government. The court sentenced him to death and he was hanged in 1969. Four decades later, the Supreme Court exonerated him of the spying charges after a posthumous retrial proved that Lee had made a genuine defection but decided to leave here because he had no real freedom being used as a propaganda tool.
Major Pak was a reverse case. He made an emergency landing in an airstrip south of the border while on a training mission in 1970. Officials immediately announced his “defection” but his press conference was delayed for several months as he refused to declare his allegiance to the South against the wishes of the authorities. He changed his mind after seeing the real South Korea in orientation tours. He cried when he told reporters how he and his colleagues had been totally deceived in the North.
Hwang Jang-yup, the highest-ranking North Korean defector ever, passed away in 2010 at the age of 87. He lived here for 13 years, much of which was spent in political oblivion under the leftist governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. He received heartfelt welcome from President Kim Young-sam when the man known as the architect of the North’s governing philosophy Juche theory arrived here via China and Japan in 1997. He soon became an embarrassment to administrations that sought appeasement with the North.
Thae Yong-ho, counselor at the North Korean Embassy in London who walked into the South Korean chancery with his family of wife and two sons in 2016, could share the fate of Hwang as the conservative Park Geun-hye administration was replaced by Moon Jae-in’s leftist rule the year after his arrival in Seoul. But he vigorously carried on anti-North activities with lectures and publications with support from the conservative mainstream of South Korean society.
Ji, who led a wretched life in contrast to Thae’s privileged one in the North, chose a more direct challenge against the Pyongyang regime, engaging himself in programs to help North Koreans escape from the land of oppression and hunger. The leader of NAUH (Now Action and Unity for Human rights) group consisting of Korean and American youths drew worldwide attention when he was introduced to US Congress during President Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address.
Earlier in 2017, Ji spoke at the Democratic Forum, hosted by the US State Department. His group held the North Korean Human Rights Conference at Princeton University and participated in the North Korean Human Rights Situation Symposium held at UN Headquarters in New York during the same year. NAUH was awarded the 2018 Democracy Award by the National Endowment for Democracy.
Ji was elected to the National Assembly through the proportional representation ticket of the opposition Korea Future Party while Thae became one of the only eight opposition nominees elected from the capital city of Seoul which shared 41 seats to the ruling party. The 21st Assembly opens on May 30, but the two lawmakers-elect were too anxious to remain quiet when North Korean chief Kim Jong-un disappeared from public view for 20 days.
Thae and Ji could not stand the ambiguities of Korean, US, Chinese and Japanese officials concerning the whereabouts and physical status of Kim who was mysteriously absent even from the April 15 celebrations of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung’s birthday. Thae told in an interview with CNN that Kim was in an extremely poor condition “unable to stand up or walk by himself.”
Ji declared he was “99 percent sure of Kim’s death” the day before North Korean official media surprised the world with stories and pictures of his dedication of a fertilizer plant in Sunchon.
The two defectors may each have had their own reliable sources that provided them misleading information, or they just expressed their speculations and hopeful thinking in too strong words. We do not know what really had happened to Kim Jong-un, but, to my untrained eyes, the 34-year-old chain smoker looked far from being fit, moving his overweight body in uncomfortable gaits -- whether or not he stayed at the eastern port city of Wonsan, farthest from the coronavirus-hit China, or he had a stent insertion during the absence.
Thae and Ji issued statements apologizing for spreading wrong information about Kim Jong-un but they need not be discouraged. Whoever respects the defector celebrities do so not because of their capability of gathering intelligence from behind the border but because of their valor to risk their lives in search of freedom and their devotion to exposing truth about the North and helping people escape from the dystopia.
It is absurd that our government’s treatment of defectors from North Korea has altered depending on political transitions here while the North Korean regime has remained unchanged. The presence of Thae and Ji in the holy chamber of the National Assembly should henceforth stand for the free democratic system that our republic has chosen.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.