On April 15, South Korea held a parliamentary election. Two different men, Thae Yong-ho and Ji Seong-ho, were elected. In the words of Henry Song, a human-rights defender in Washington, D.C., their election was “truly a historic, seismic, shocking event.”
How so? Thae and Ji are North Korean defectors. And their elevation to the South Korean National Assembly reverberates on both sides of the border.
When news came that Thae and Ji had won, there was jubilation in the North Korean defector community, which numbers 33,500 in South Korea (a country of about 50 million). There are scattered others elsewhere.
The word “defector” confuses some people, understandably, because we are used to thinking of a defector as a government official or celebrity — a ballet dancer, let’s say, or a baseball player — who goes over from an unfree country to a free one. But the North Korean government considers anyone who leaves a defector: a traitor to the state. People who have left North Korea think of themselves as having defected from the state that claimed ownership of them, body and soul.
So do South Koreans welcome their brothers from the North with open arms? Park Yeonmi, a prominent defector, said, “The South Koreans treat us like second-class citizens,” she says. “They are more sympathetic to people in Africa than they are to their fellow Koreans from the North.”
There are plenty of South Koreans who treat defectors compassionately, … but the South Korean Left bitterly resents defectors — especially ones who squawk about human rights and what they suffered back home.
Meanwhile, North Korean defectors have grown restive, politically. They regard the incumbent South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, as soft on North Korea. They suspect him of naïveté and worse. The government has severely cut aid to refugee groups and groups that help refugees, as well as direct assistance to refugees. The government is pretty frank about this. One official said, “North Korean defectors might not enjoy the same benefits that they enjoyed during the two previous conservative governments.”