Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, on Jan. 19, 2017.
Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, on Jan. 19, 2017. Jun Michael Park for The Washington Post via Getty Images

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The Future of Korean Politics Might Be This Defector From Pyongyang

Thae Yong-ho went from North Korean diplomat to South Korean politician.

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Few men possess Thae Yong-ho’s sartorial elegance. The newly elected South Korean politician will regularly appear in a dark fedora hat, a gray suit with a white shirt, tortoiseshell sunglasses—which he keeps on indoors—and a luxury Salvatore Ferragamo or Hermès tie checkered with an African menagerie print of giraffes, zebras, and spotted panthers. Thae dresses with the pride of a man who knows he has arrived. The cosmopolitan speaks fluent English and Chinese in addition to his native Korean.

For a regular South Korean official, all this wouldn’t be so unusual. For a man raised in one of the most closed dictatorships on Earth, and who spent more than three decades as a senior diplomat for Pyongyang before becoming one of the highest-ranking defectors in 2016, it is extraordinary. Now, he has made history as the first North Korean directly elected to South Korea’s legislature—just four years after he fled. And if North Korea ever reconciles with its neighbor—whether through collapse or diplomacy—it may be trailblazers like Thae who play a key role in any rapprochement.

“In half a century, nobody of his caliber has defected.” 

“In half a century, nobody of his caliber has defected,” said Andrei Lankov, the director of Korea Risk Group, a research firm. “We have probably the first North Korean who can be described as a politician independent from the North Korean state.”

After encountering many communist apparatchiks in the course of my reporting, from China to Cuba, I was cautious when I met Thae. People who’ve succeeded in that kind of system tend to be ruthless, inscrutable, and pay you lip service for what they think you want to hear. You don’t know what they really believe in. They carry the coldness of survivors who’ve worked their way up an unforgiving system.

Thae speaks to the media after securing a majority vote in his Gangnam constituency on behalf of the conservative United Future Party during South Korea's parliamentary elections, at his campaign headquarters in the Gangnam district of Seoul on April 16.

Thae speaks to the media after securing a majority vote in his Gangnam constituency on behalf of the conservative United Future Party during South Korea’s parliamentary elections, at his campaign headquarters in the Gangnam district of Seoul on April 16. ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images

Thae was none of the above, and well before his time in the South, he impressed and charmed many of the people he met. In North Korea, he came from a family with good revolutionary credentials, though not particularly elite. He did well after college and served as a diplomat overseas. He worked in Denmark during the awful famine years, with the unenviable task of procuring luxury European goods for the Kim family while appealing for help to the World Food Program to feed the rest of his country. In London, he bargain-hunted for real estate to set up the embassy at its new location on a quiet suburban street. In his free time, he made foreign friends and took up tennis and golf. Unusually, he’d gained the trust of his superiors back home so much that they granted him the rare exception of bringing his wife and sons along during his tour. That would prove critical for Thae and his decision to escape.

Other defectors have served and will serve in the National Assembly: Cho Myeong-cheol in 2012 and Ji Seong-ho this term. But both were nominated by their parties rather than running directly for a seat—the South Korean system mixes proportional representation with directly elected representatives. Neither had to campaign and appeal to South Koreans as Thae did.

Prejudice in the country against former North Koreans runs deep, with defectors often accused of being spies. For most North Koreans, liberation has its share of trauma, with many finding it hard to adjust to South Korea’s fierce job market and intense democracy.

Most defectors flee for economic reasons. After a lifetime of ideological indoctrination, they actually care little for politics. They are predominantly middle-aged women with limited education, often from one of the border towns near China. Once free, they struggle to adjust, living in poverty and working for low wages. Shunted to the periphery of South Korean society, this group has not had a voice.

On the surface, Thae shares little in common with them, but “I consider myself North Korean,” he told me—he means his sensibility, even if he has successfully adapted to being a citizen of South Korea. “My way of thinking is mostly in the North Korean way,” he admitted. Thae knows the world the refugee community left and understands the bewildering feeling they have in their new home.

An aide records a live video as Thae, seen reflected in a mirror, speaks at his campaign headquarters in the Gangnam district of Seoul on March 28.

An aide records a live video as Thae, seen reflected in a mirror, speaks at his campaign headquarters in Gangnam on March 28. ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images

But Thae in his dapper ensembles—or sporting his United Future Party’s pink jackets—looks every part the modern South Korean man. He won in Gangnam, the affluent Seoul district made famous by the K-pop star Psy’s hit song. He had become a household name by the time he launched his campaign this year—a celebrity with a bestselling memoir and a North Korea expert, frequently quoted in media. As he celebrated his win and supporters sang the national anthem, Thae broke down into tears. “I can’t believe that it is real,” he said. “One day in the future,” he added, “I’m sure that North Korean people will adopt the same method of an election process.” He had officially run as Thae Ku-min, a pseudonym he first used in the early days of his defection. It was symbolic. It translates to “saving the people,” and he had North Koreans in mind. He has pledged that he will advocate for their needs, particularly for more funding for vocational job training and other forms of social assistance. He does not want them treated like second-class citizens.

“Just raising the issue and talking about it, raising public awareness, is the key thing that he can do,” said Sue Mi Terry, a senior fellow for Korea at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former CIA analyst. Last November, Thae attacked the government for its repatriation of two North Korean defectors. They were accused of murdering their fishing crew, and the public had little sympathy for them. Thae deplored their handover back to the North to certain death, arguing that they should at least face trial in South Korea. He points to that incident as his wake-up call to jump into politics.

He didn’t have to do this. Thae has said his primary motivation for escaping was for the sake of his children, so he could have melted away into safe anonymity after he defected with his family. His enemy was a regime fond of dramatic assassinations of those it views as traitors or threats, including the murder of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, at the airport in Kuala Lumpur with a nerve agent. “He is probably number one on their assassination list,” Lankov said.

Not tall, he walks into a room in an unassuming manner, but you notice him because of the big men in suits circling around to guard him. At the Oslo Freedom Forum last year, an attacker managed to get past his protective ring to toss a milkshake at him outside a hotel. For a few moments, people panicked, assuming it was poison. It turned out the protester was a local leftist activist, and it was really just a milkshake. The incident, however, demonstrated how easy an assassination would be. It did not scare him into silence. Thae clearly wants to matter and in a very public way.

What makes his hawkish position on North Korea different is his humanity of having been North Korean.

“Maybe I would appear every night on TV,” he told me last year, fantasizing about a day when the two countries might unify. He would explain South Korean life to his compatriots. “I may play a kind of role bridging the North and South.” For him, reconciliation is not a question of if but when. South Korean politicians speak about unification in lofty but abstract terms. Thae thinks Seoul needs far more concrete plans—from handling the North’s military to education to health care—for that eventuality. “There is no preparation at all,” he said. However system collapse plays out, decades of militant propaganda against the South will mean that someone like Thae may be one of the few figures North Koreans would trust and simultaneously one of the authorities South Korean leadership would turn to for policy advice. As long as he manages to avoid assassination, Thae is in a valuable, possibly indispensable spot.

What makes his hawkish position on North Korea different is his humanity of having been North Korean. His criticism of President Moon Jae-in’s détente was one reason why the United Future Party (UFP), the conservative opposition, supported his candidacy. Among parties, Thae had few viable options except to join the UFP. The alternative would have been Moon’s Democratic Party, and Thae views its policy on North Korea as appeasement. The UFP welcomed the name recognition Thae brought, along with his anti-Kim credentials. Yet he is more nuanced than most other members of the right when it comes to Pyongyang. Many conservatives insist on zero engagement until a total collapse of the regime.

Photos of Thae are displayed at his campaign headquarters in Seoul on March 28.

Photos of Thae are displayed at his campaign headquarters in Seoul on March 28. ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images

“The question is to which extent he will be able to express his opinions, which will seriously differ from what is the politically correct group think of the South Korean right,” Lankov said. Where the conservatives see an enemy, Thae sees millions of oppressed fellow citizens.

Thae’s normalization into South Korean politics also conveys a powerful message to possible future defectors that refugee integration is possible.

His victory not only has the potential to benefit current defectors or reinvigorate the South’s political conversation on the North. Thae’s normalization into South Korean politics also conveys a powerful message to his former colleagues—possible future defectors—that refugee integration is possible.

“One of the reasons the North Korean regime survives—one of its pillars of stability—is elite support,” Terry explained. His victory proves that there is “an alternative pathway for them that can safeguard their survival. Thae’s election shows that North Korean defectors are not only welcome in South Korea, but they are now part of South Korea’s leadership.”

Until this month, North Korean elites may have hated Kim’s brutal rule, but they tolerated it out of self-preservation because they believed they had no better options. Thae has said he hopes they’ve been tracking his progress, to “watch and understand how democracy works.” His success dangerously challenges the North’s prevailing narrative, even if the reality is that his triumph is unlikely to be easily replicated by other defectors. Thae’s victory may spur Kim to make an example of him. “Frankly if they are determined, they can do it,” Lankov said.

Thae testifies during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 1, 2017.

Thae testifies during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 1, 2017. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Thae begins his new political life in South Korea and continues to win friends and allies with his energy and forthrightness. If he’s putting up a front, it’s been quite a show. As others who’ve met him in person also note, he exudes charisma. He engages in questions with enthusiasm and care. Once he sets his sunglasses aside, you catch his curious eyes. At the same conference where he thought he might have been milkshake-murdered, he spent his free time attending the other panels and workshops, at one point peering into the session on LGBTQ rights, later listening attentively to an evangelist about the power of bitcoin. He is a smart man making up for lost time.

He might dress the part, but he can still feel out of place in South Korea. (“I’m not good at using these smartphones,” he confessed to me at one point. “You have to remember a lot of passwords.”) Neither does he idolize his new country. When it comes to defectors’ struggles, he observes that “North Korean people are freed from North Korea’s slavery system but they become another slave of South Korean capitalism.” He may represent a district of fiscal conservatives who demand lower taxes, but it doesn’t preclude him from seeing things with eyes wide open.

In many ways, his positive disposition jars you. It doesn’t reflect the strange, creepy life he led—of Juche (“self-reliance”) ideology in years of horrendous famine or of colleagues who would occasionally disappear, presumably to some prison camp, no questions asked. He can seem too good to be true: a realist who worked his way up North Korean bureaucracy, a dreamer to have defected the way he did and taken the brave path to run for office.

“I have to believe that he’s committed to his cause,” Terry said, when I asked about his authenticity. Thae, once an eloquent spokesman for the Kim dynasty, now speaks with equal passion about freedom: “I want North Koreans to understand and see the democratic process through me. That is my main purpose.”

Melissa Chan is a national and foreign affairs reporter who previously worked as a broadcast correspondent for Al Jazeera. She is a collaborator with the Global Reporting Centre and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.