A former North Korean diplomat won a parliamentary seat in South Korea’s fanciest district, Gangnam, four years after fleeing the London embassy and becoming the highest ranking government official in Pyongyang to defect south.
Thae Yong Ho was Pyongyang’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom where he managed secret funds for leader Kim Jong-un until he fled to the democratic and wealthy south with his family in 2016.
Thae, 55, won one of three districts in the scintillating district of Seoul for the main conservative opposition party in Wednesday’s legislative elections, defeating a former party lawmaker in the four-year ruling party by almost 20%.
“I was very afraid that the residents of Gangnam would take a guy from the North,” said Thae, smiling in a shared acceptance speech on her YouTube channel, as crowds of voters gathered in her campaign office, chanting his name and applauding.
“But so many people here gave me strength – they held my hand, welcomed me to Gangnamand promised to vote for me,” he said hoarsely after weeks gathering.
Gangnam, a rich and conservative district known for its boutiques, high-end bars and luxury houses, has achieved international renown thanks to the success of pop-music K-pop “GangnamStyle” by musician Psy in 2012.
Thae, who had worked in South Korea as a foreign policy expert before running for parliament in February, is the first North Korean refugee to become a constituency lawmaker in South Korea. Cho Myung-chul, a former North Korean professor, served in parliament from 2012 to 2016 with party approval but without any constituencies.
Legislative elections on Wednesday registered a record turnout of 66.2%, despite the vote that took place in the midst of a viral epidemic. President Moon Jae-in’s party – the Democratic Party – has won a resounding victory over the back of its successful management of the epidemic.
The election also attracted unprecedented levels of participation from North Korean defectors contesting what they saw as the president’s flawed cross-border policy.
Groups of defectors complained that the Moon administration had cut funding, ignored human rights and suppressed anti-Pyongyang activism in favor of further reconciliation with the Kim regime.
Ji Seong-ho, a defector invited to Washington in 2018 to attend the State of the Union address by US President Donald Trump, was also elected to parliament as a proportionate representative.
“No roots in the South”
But Thae’s political incursion was far from easy, in the face of the reaction of some citizens and even of his party’s campaign manager, Kim Chong-in, who declared that Thae was not able to represent the district. because it had “no roots in the South”.
Kim later apologized and approved of Thae.
“His overwhelming victory means that the people of Gangnam did not really care about being a defector. They seem to believe that he is more loyal to the South, not to the North,” said Lim Seong-ho, professor of political science at Kyung Hee University in Seoul.
Critics have also raised questions about Thae’s rapidly accumulated wealth when he listed more than 1.8 billion won ($ 1.5 million) in assets.
Thae said he made money by lecturing and writing books and papers, and that he paid more than 100 million won ($ 81,000) in taxes each year.
There will be no congratulations on my part for Tae Yong-Ho. In 2016, the Park Geun-Hye administration is now known to the public for having armed the country’s intelligence agencies to encourage high-level defections from North Korea for its own political gain. Tae was one of them.
– Tom Fowdy (@Tom_Fowdy) April 15, 2020
His two memoirs were very successful. The first of these, in which he described how Pyongyang secretly raised foreign exchange through diplomatic missions as well as the duplicity of its denuclearization commitment, has sold more than 200,000 copies in South Korea and has been published in several languages.
State media in North Korea criticized Thae’s defection, calling him a “human scum” and a criminal who embezzled public funds and sexually assaulted a minor.
Thae flatly denied the allegations and pledged to continue his political activities even after the police tightened security due to security concerns.
“I had risked my life to come to the Republic of Korea in search of free democracy and values in the market economy,” said Thae.
“I will solve regional problems with market principles,” he added, promising to promote a “North Korean policy which better reflects the reality there and corresponds to the pride of the citizens of South Korea”.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)