On 10 February, South Korean media outlets reported that former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho, who had defected to the ROK in 2016, was planning to run in the upcoming April 15 general elections, “as a member of the main opposition” / conservative party – Liberty Korea Party (LKP).
According to politicians in the LKP, “Thae is a person who risked his life for freedom and who can present a vision for peace and publicize South Korea’s related position”. His victory “is also expected to give hope to not only North Korean defectors but also all people in both Koreas desiring genuine reunification”.
In such a climate, it would be remiss of the author not to remind his readers about who Thae Yong-ho is, and why the possibility of him becoming a lawmaker is a worrying sign for South Korea’s political landscape.
Thae Yong-ho comes from a respectable and privileged family. In 1990s he started working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and from April 2013 to summer 2016, he was South Korea’s Deputy Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Details provided by South Korean and British media outlets about his defection, organized by the UK’s and USA’s intelligence agencies, differed. But according to an official account, Thae Yong-ho defected because DPRK authorities demanded that he send his children, aged 26 and 19 at the time, back home. Having spent more than 10 years residing abroad, they became increasingly accustomed to a western lifestyle and would not have easily adapted to living on rations and learning about political ideology. In the DPRK, he stands accused of kidnapping and raping a minor.
In South Korea, Thae Yong-ho’s defection was portrayed as further proof of the fact that Kim Jong-un’s regime was on the verge of collapsing owing to international sanctions imposed against it. The defector has given many public speeches and pledged to dedicate his life to the defense of human rights and the democratization of North Korea, adding the usual number of anti-Pyongyang tall tales to his description of the real situation in the DPRK. Thae Yong-ho has also made a number of sensational predictions, which are best forgotten. For example, in May 2017, he told Mike Pompeo, the Director of the CIA at the time, that the North Korean regime was not long for this world, and that soon the army and intelligence services would start a rebellion against it.
In 2019, Thae Yong-ho published a book titled “Cryptography From the Third-Floor Secretariat”, its epigraph essentially stated that North Korean people looked forward to being set free from their slavery. After he began his political career in the ROK, it came to light that Thae Yong-ho had legally changed his name (just as many defectors do) to Tae Gu-min, a moniker meant to reflect his desire to “save the people”.
This story became public knowledge after a North Korean group supposedly tried to hack his smartphone but failed to gather any useful information with the exception of the new name. However, the author thinks that the news about Thae Yong-ho’s phone being targeted by hackers and his new moniker was widely publicized because, in accordance with the ROK legislation, he would need to run for office under his legal name in any case. But has anyone actually heard of Tae Gu-min? And the answer today would be “Yes, everyone has heard of him by now,” and we can congratulate the former diplomat’s PR staff with a successful campaign.
But aside from the ex-Deputy Ambassador, who became the “savior of the people” after leaving the intelligence community, yet another defector announced his plans to run for office in South Korea’s legislative election as a member of the conservative party. Meet Ji Seong-ho, our disabled candidate!
Ji Seong-ho was born in 1982 and grew up during the North Korean famine of the mid-1990s. In order to survive, he regularly stole coal from trains and then tried to exchange it for food at markets. During one such escapade, Ji Seong-ho sustained an injury and, as a result, his left leg and left arm had to be partially amputated. We can decide how believable his story is based on his own account of what happened. By winter 1996, Ji Seong-ho had been weakened by hunger but still needed to continue scavenging for coal otherwise his family would have nothing to eat. It was a cold night on 7 March of that year, and at approximately 2.00 a.m. he lost consciousness. He fell through a gap between cars of a train carrying coal and got run over as a result. Ji Seong-ho regained consciousness on the tracks and realized that “a piece of very thin flesh was holding” his left leg to the rest of his body. Three of the fingers on his “left hand had been sheared off” too. “Blood was gushing out” and it was extremely cold. He remembers screaming out for his mom. Railway staff came to his aid and dumped him in a wheelbarrow, he was then taken to “what passed for a hospital in North Korea during the famine”. There was “no morphine, no anesthesia”. The operation to amputate his limbs (without anesthetic) took four hours. He still remembers feeling “the saw cutting into the bone of” his leg.
It is a truly gut-wrenching tale, but many medical professionals acquainted with the author think that, during the aforementioned ordeal, the starving teenager would have either died from blood loss on route to the hospital or from neurogenic shock during such a long surgery without anesthetic.
Once Ji Seong-ho recovered, he began “foraging for food, which sometimes involved crossing the border into China”. In June 2000, on his return from the PRC, he was arrested, tortured and his crutches were taken from him. “The police severely beat me for a week, maybe more than other escapees. They told me that because I am disabled I brought shame to North Korea and that someone with only one leg should stay home,” recounts Ji Seong-ho.
This event, he related, “was the main motivation for his desire to leave North Korea”. However, he only managed to escape in 2006, before that, he had supposedly sold fruit on the black market where policemen made derogatory comments about his disabilities and demanded bribes.
On reaching South Korea, Ji Seong-ho converted to Christianity, enrolled in college to study law and founded the organization Now, Action, Unity, Human Rights (NAUH), whose aim is to raise awareness about human rights abuses in North Korea and to help defectors pay “to move from China to South Korea”. In fact, Ji Seong-ho specializes in recounting and selling scary stories about crimes committed by the North Korean regime against disabled people.
According to Ji Seong-ho’s accounts, the DPRK “is systematically purging its disabled population by making them disappear from public sight, subjecting them to chemical weapons tests and castrating them”, and “babies with mental and physical disabilities are routinely snatched from hospitals and left to suffer ‘indescribable things’ until they die”. Supposedly, all of this is happening because the regime proclaims: “There are no people with disabilities under the Kims’ rule” and “everyone is equal and living well”. Ji Seong-ho says he was forced to hide in the DPRK because his disabilities “hurt the dignity” of the leader and his nation. So how was he able to work at the black market then?
In addition, two other defectors, whose identities Ji Seong-ho did not reveal, “told him of a village in a remote mountain region that had been effectively turned into an asylum to house people with dwarfism.” North Korean dwarfs were supposedly castrated in order to eradicate them. Hence, there may not be anyone left to corroborate this story by now.
However, more often than not, the fact that a defector managed to survive such ordeals undermines his or her story. If the DPRK authorities really had had such policies in place, Ji Seong-ho (who was not part of the elite) would not have lived long enough to escape from North Korea.
In January 2020, conservatives issued a statement about their decision to accept Ji Seong-ho into their ranks as a new member who would run for office in the April 15 general election.
It is not surprising that the appearance of the two defectors on ROK’s political landscape has angered the DPRK. Uriminzokkiri, “a North Korean propaganda outlet”, called Ji Seong-ho a shameful person who was “trying to deceive and profit by smearing his mother country”. “(He) is running amok deceiving others with his past dirty deeds to extract as much money as possible … while leading an anti-republic smearing campaign,” the website said.
Meari, another North Korean propaganda website, called Thae Yong-ho “a snob who escaped the strict punishment of the law after committing all kinds of vicious crimes in” the DPRK “including embezzling state funds and raping a minor”. The report (characteristically) concluded that “driving these scums to the forefront of confrontation between the two Koreas” was an intolerable challenge to DPRK’s desire for unification.
So what can the author say about these two candidates? South Korea is a fairly democratic nation and it would be impossible to stop an objectionable person from entering the world of politics. So let us discuss consequences instead:
- Having a professional liar such as Ji Seong-ho run for office is equivalent to shooting oneself in the foot, because even a person who possesses any critical thinking skills would be able to pick holes in his biography.
- This either means conservatives have no other viable candidates or their anti-Pyongyang sentiments have blinded them to such an extent that Ji Seong-ho and Thae Yong-ho were chosen over other party members capable of garnering more votes.
- Of course, some people will vote for them but more will not because an average ROK citizen does not, all in all, have a high opinion of defectors and often views high-ranking defectors as traitors who cannot be trusted. South Koreans usually think that they fled the regime for their own personal gain and not for political reasons, and could, therefore, betray their new home country.
- All of these developments have caused tensions in the DPRK, and considering the inter-Korean dialogue has stalled, such moves could result in its complete break-down. After all, even when conservatives were in power they did not resort to such provocative actions.
- And the author does not even wish to consider the possibility that conservatives are preparing to sacrifice Thae Yong-ho’s life, his assassination by DPRK agents or forces will, after all, help shift the society’s opinion in the required direction. It could be a plan in the spirit of Free Joseon, which does not need any rivals. However, the author will refrain from any further speculation about conspiracy theories.
- There are altogether a little over 30,000 defectors from the DPRK in South Korea and the number of North Koreans fleeing their homeland is falling. This means that the party with its new members will lack political clout, serving to fulfill the ambitions of its leaders. It would have been far more beneficial for conservatives to focus their efforts on defending the rights of North Koreans to ensure they are not treated as second class citizens.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.