North Korean defectors divided on Seoul detente

Days before Moon Jae-in was elected president of South Korea on May 9, about 300 people gathered at the national legislature to endorse the former human rights lawyer and advocate of dialogue and engagement with reclusive North Korea. Surprisingly, the group comprised many North Korean defectors, a demographic known for its conservative politics and strong support for sanctions and isolation of Pyongyang.

One high-profile defector, known for his hawkish views, was Ahn Chan-il, a former soldier who defected in 1979. Ahn told the Nikkei Asian Review that attitudes among some 70 defector groups in the South have changed: “Five years ago, 30% supported Moon Jae-in and 70% supported Park Geun-hye, but the spectrum has changed and now it is more like 70% liberal and 30% conservative. A minority oppose Moon but the majority supports him.”

Moon has adopted a dovish stance on the North, pledging to revive some version of the “sunshine” policy of engagement.

Kang Myung-do, another prominent defector and Moon supporter associated with hardline views in the past, said the political right had been discredited by the Park scandal, rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the fact that Pyongyang carried out most of its nuclear tests during a decade of conservative rule.

In South Korea and beyond, defectors have often argued for hardline policies to squeeze the Kim family regime. Thae Yong-ho, who became the highest-ranking defector in decades after absconding from the North Korean embassy in London last year, is one of many high-profile regime critics to have expressed skepticism about any cooperation that could prop up an oppressive system.

As well as resenting harsh treatment in their repressive homeland, many defectors retain bitter memories of the “sunshine” years during which liberal governments shied away from highlighting human rights abuses in the North for fear of scuppering inter-Korean reconciliation. The late Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking defector to date and the architect of North Korea’s state ideology known as juche, complained of being gagged by the Kim and Roh administrations to avoid upsetting the northern regime.

[Nikkei Asian Review]

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