SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A high-profile North Korean defector said Tuesday he’ll run in upcoming parliamentary elections in South Korea as part of his efforts to help South Koreans understand the true nature of North Korea and map out a better unification policy.
Thae Yong Ho, a former minister at the North Korean Embassy in London who came to Seoul with his family in 2016, is the most senior North Korean diplomat to defect to South Korea. Since his arrival here, Thae has openly criticized North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions and expressed skepticism over Kim’s denuclearization commitment made during now-stalled diplomacy with President Donald Trump.
Thae told reporters Tuesday he decided to run in the April 15 elections on the ticket of the conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party after agonizing over how to contribute to South Korea with his knowledge on North Korea.
Thae said he’s spoken in conferences and written many articles to let the South Korean people know about North Korean strategies. But Thae said he’s found an acute divide in how South Koreans view the North is a major obstacle toward unification and that he was deeply frustrated with what he called “a wrong direction” that South Korea’s liberal government has taken on its North Korean policy.
Thae apparently refers to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s push to expand ties with North Korea and resume joint economic projects despite a standstill in the U.S.-North Korean nuclear diplomacy. Moon has said improved inter-Korean ties would help facilitate U.S.-North Korean diplomacy.
“I know about North Korean systems and its government more deeply than anyone else in South Korea,” Thae said. “I’d like to legislate and realize a practical unification policy based on a free democracy order … rather than just sending unconditional aid to North Korea or taking an unconditional confrontation with it.”
When North Korean ruling elites and residents witness him electing to South Korean parliament, Thae said that “a genuine unification that we want would approach us one step closer.”
If Thae is elected, he would become the second North Korean defector to win a seat in South Korea’s single-chamber National Assembly. Former North Korean Cho Myung-Chul, who came to South Korea in 1994, served as a proportional representative for a predecessor of the Liberty Korea Party from 2012 to 2016.
The Liberty Korea Party said Monday it will field Thae in a Seoul constituency in the election.
It’s rare for senior North Korean officials to defect to South Korea. About 33,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea in the past two decades, but most are women from rural towns near the border with China who fled to avoid poverty.
After coming to Seoul, Thae has said that he decided to flee because he didn’t want his children to live “miserable” lives in North Korea and he was disappointed with Kim Jong Un. Thae said he initially had some hopes for Kim but eventually fell into “despair” after watching him execute officials and pursue development of nuclear weapons.
North Korea has called Thae “human scum” and accused him of embezzling government money and committing other crimes.