In April 2018, former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho was giving a speech to a human-rights conference. South Korean intelligence agents prevented a television network from filming the speech. They also prevented — forcibly prevented — Thae from taking questions from the press. This was in advance of an inter-Korean summit, and the government apparently did not want to rile the North.
Two years later, Thae Yong-ho ran for and won election to the National Assembly of South Korea.
Thae was born in 1962, into the North Korean elite. He became a diplomat, eventually serving as deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom. He defected in 2016.
He is an urbane, elegant fellow. He is also tremendously brave. The North Korean government called him “human scum” and accused him of the usual: embezzlement and child rape. Thae is a defector in the traditional sense. Indeed, he is one of the highest-ranking officials ever to defect from North Korea.
At the Oslo Freedom Forum last year, I asked Thae about his personal security. “I have a lot of worries,” he said, “but I am heavily protected when I am in South Korea. The South Korean government knows that I am No. 1 on the assassination list.” And “I know this will go on till the last day of the Kim regime.”
In the South Korean context, Thae is a conservative, favoring a market economy and a tough-minded policy toward the North — a realistic one, he would say. He is strongly anti-socialist and anti-Communist, and a sharp critic of President Moon Jae-in’s government.
Park Yeonmi points out that Thae will be on South Korean television a lot. South Koreans will see his face, along with fellow-defector-turned-politcian Ji Seong-ho, hear their stories, listen to their points of view. Thae and Ji will help “humanize us,” says Yeonmi.