Defectors back ruling party this time in National Assembly elections

Defector-turned-lawmaker Thae Yong-ho, right, who is running for his second term on the People Power Party (PPP) ticket for the April 10 election, poses with Han Dong-hoon, left, the interim leader of the PPP, on March 30. (Image | Thae’s Facebook)

In the lead up to the parliamentary elections in South Korea on April 10, the campaigns of some North Korean defectors are gaining attention

These candidates share a common background. It is not too hyperbolic to say they were born into a harsh world where they lived much of their lives as slaves.

Consequently, they have developed similar political inclinations. They share the conviction that liberal democracy and dictatorship are fundamentally incompatible and that there can be no compromise under any circumstances with dictators.

In South Korea, as you would imagine, the political landscape is broadly polarized between conservatism and progressivism. In this regard, it is not unlike the United States and other democracies, many of which are also holding elections this year.

As far as North Koreans are concerned, these overseas elections are not that interesting. That is because Republicans or Democrats, conservatives and progressives do not seem that different in their North Korea policies. 

However, the situation is different in South Korea. That is because the issue that separates conservative and liberal is neither economic or cultural. It is a matter of national identity that is intrinsically tied up with North Korea and the approach to reconciliation and reunification.

The divide between these two sides was especially exacerbated during the tenure of former President Moon Jae-in.

Defectors overwhelmingly support the conservative approach to North Korea. 

“Why do I support the (ruling) People Power Party?” said Kim, 55, a journalist for Free North Korea Radio. “It’s quite simple for me. The (opposition) Democratic Party cannot achieve peace by accommodating the regime. I’m convinced Kim Jong-un will never give up his dictatorship.”

“The threat of war provides the justification he needs to maintain his dictatorship,” she said. “From as soon as we can speak, we were taught that we had to invade South Korea. That’s North Korea for you.”

“Kim Jong-un’s peace show is just a way of taking advantage of South Korea. It has nothing to do with ensuring actual peace. War is restrained when South Korea is strong,” she said.

Asked why he was campaigning for the conservative party, Bae, 47, who has been in the South for 16 years and runs a small business, said his political awakening came when South Korean authorities forced two defecting fishermen back over the border to North Korea

“I was shocked when they accepted that these guys were murderers without a trial,” he said. “It was the North that called them murderers. What if they call me a murderer some time? Do I get sent back? Seeing photos of them resisting being pushed over the border made me shiver like a pig. Actually, I wasn’t interested in politics before that and didn’t even vote. But that has changed. It’s not just a simple political choice. It’s about saving my life.”

This may seem like an overreaction to South Koreans. But the sentiment is widespread among defectors. Many want to do their part to make sure the opposition party loses its majority in the National Assembly.

“If the Democratic Party wins, there’s no telling when they might start hunting down defectors at the behest of Kim Jong-un,” said Yoon, who has been in the South for 20 years. A single mother supporting her daughters’ university education, she is active in human rights organizations.

“My daughters left the North when they were really young. They’re no different from kids here,” she said. “They’re inclined to support the Democratic Party, and it’s hard to convince them otherwise. I can’t force them. But lately, I’ve been feeling like I haven’t raised them well.”

Former military officer Kim, 65, has the same issue. “Of course, I support the (ruling) People Power Party,” he said. “But my daughter supports the liberal party.”

“She agrees with the liberals who prioritize economic relations with China while condemning Japan and the United States. She also disagrees with the Yoon administration’s focus on relations with Japan and the United States. So, I asked her, if a war breaks out with North Korea, do you think the Chinese will help us? Or do you think it will be the US military and the Japanese self-defense forces? She replied that the Chinese army probably wouldn’t help us.”

“I asked her which party is pushing for closer ties with the US and Japan? Then I asked, if North Korean troops entered Seoul, who do you think they would kill first? She didn’t respond. Anyway, her perspective changed after that conversation.”

The history of conservative and progressive administrations

South Korea has had 11 presidents, including the current President, Yoon Suk-yeol. Among them, eight have been considered “conservative” and three “progressive.”

The conservative lineage in South Korea includes the three main leaders in the pre-democracy period in the 40 years from the founding as a separate state in 1948 until the first democratic presidential election in 1987. They were Syngman Rhee (1948-60), Park Chung-hee (1961-79) and Chun Doo-hwan (1980-88). 

Even after democracy, voters continued to elect conservative leaders. They were: Roh Tae-woo (1988-93), Kim Young-sam (1993-8), Lee Myung-bak (2008-13), Park Geun-hye (2013-7), and the current President, Yoon Suk-yeol (2022-present).

The progressive side has produced three presidents: Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003), Roh Moo-hyun (2003-8), and Moon Jae-in (2017-22).

Syngman Rhee (July 1948 – April 1960)

“Follow me, unite and live; divide and die.” (October 1948, first broadcast two months after liberation)

As the founding father of South Korea, Syngman Rhee spent most of his life as an independence activist against Japanese rule and was a key founder of the Provisional Government. An educated man, Rhee was the first Korean to earn a Ph.D. He played a crucial role in the national founding. His lasting legacy was the establishment of the South Korea-U.S. alliance. 

Rhee’s country was not a democracy. But it was an aspiring democracy. Rhee was a Methodist and a humanitarian, but his rule was authoritarian and he stepped down following student protests against a rigged election. For this reason, his image was tarnished and he was never rehabilitated by his successors. Interestingly, while statues of many founding presidents are featured in their respective embassies in the United States, there is no such statue of Syngman Rhee.

Park Chung-hee (December 1963 – October 1979)

“If there is even one possibility in a hundred, we should exert our utmost efforts. That is what national defense is.” (Press conference in 1975)

As a military dictator, Park Chung-hee is still dismissed in some progressive circles. His rule became more oppressive as time went on. His Yushin Constitution gave him dictatorial powers. Park made a strong national defense and anti-communism his top priorities. 

But his outstanding achievement, which even many progressives acknowledge, was that he laid the foundation for Korea’s remarkable economic growth. It is this that ensured South Korea’s eventual democracy and indisputable ascendancy over North Korea.

Chun Doo-hwan (September 1980 – February 1988)

“If Yun-sang lives, you (the kidnapper) will live. If he dies, you die” (During a nationwide address after a young boy named Lee Yun-sang was kidnapped)

Chun Doo-hwan often began his speeches with the phrase “I myself,” delivered in a deep, resonant tone. He is perceived by all parties now as a military dictator without redeeming features. His greatest mistake is considered to have been the violent suppression of the Gwangju Uprising in May 1980.

North Korean defectors, however, are inclined to be more forgiving. Many of them argue that events in Gwangju were orchestrated by Kim Il-sung, who sent spies to incite rebellion, and that if the authorities had not acted swiftly, it could have led to a second Korean War.

Chun came to power through a staged coup in 1979 and ‘80. He successfully bid for the first major international events in South Korea, such as the Asian Games in 1986 and the Summer Olympics in 1988, and completed economic development and national land improvement projects. Although not really credited for it, he agreed to step down as he had promised after his seven-year term and accepted the constitutional change in 1987 that allowed for his successor to be elected through a direct popular vote. It was this tweak to the constitution that turned Korea into a democracy. 

Roh Tae-woo (February 1988 – February 1993)

“I am an ordinary person. Please trust me.” (During the presidential election campaign)

Roh Tae-woo was the first president to win under the direct election system and to see out the modern five-year single term. He, too, faced accusations of being a military dictator or at least partly so because he had been a key participant in Chun Doo-hwan’s coup and right-hand man during Chun’s reign. His “I am an ordinary person” slogan was devised to counter these criticisms.

Roh Tae-woo was considered to have led South Korea with a gentle but sometimes indecisive leadership style. During his tenure, he introduced a nordpolitik approach to North Korea (modeled on West Germany’s ostpolitk approach to East Germany) that emphasized dialogue and no longer penalized overseas Koreans for dealing with the North. 

He oversaw the simultaneous entry of both Koreas into the United Nations, and the establishment of Seoul’s diplomatic relations with North Korea’s east bloc allies, notably the Soviet Union and China.

Kim Young-sam (February 1993 – February 1998)

“Even if you twist a rooster’s comb, dawn will come.” (After being expelled from the National Assembly)

First elected in the 1950s in his 20s as the youngest member of parliament, Kim Young-sam was a Presbyterian and a longtime champion of democracy and became the president 50 years later. Despite his criticism of authoritarian leaders, Kim was never accused of being a “communist,” particularly as his mother had been murdered by North Korean infiltrators in 1960. 

Kim graduated from Seoul National University’s Department of Philosophy, was known for his rambling and emotional speeches, which made people find him interesting and feel his humanity. However, he made many gaffes. Once in a press conference, for example, he was asked about nuclear weapons and got it mixed up with nuclear power. As his predecessor had been an army general, Kim is seen by progressives as the first civilian democratic president. He was elected as the candidate for Roh’s ruling party. 

Lee Myung-bak (February 2008 – February 2013)

“Whether there is a path already there or not, don’t think about it; think about how to create a new path.” (Lee started many speeches about new projects with this phrase.)

A former CEO of Hyundai Construction and Engineering, Lee is the only president with a solid background in business. He frequently used economic terms familiar to businesspeople. He was known for presenting new ideas along with specific details simultaneously. 

Lee was a Christian who served as an elder in the Somang Presbyterian Church in Seoul. Following two presidents who had held talks with North Korea and not achieved much in his estimation, Lee said he was open to talks “anywhere, anytime,” but not if the North wasn’t serious. For this posture, progressives dismissed him as “anti-unification.” Lee concluded the South Korea-EU Free Trade Agreement, and hosted the G20 Summit.

Park Geun-hye (Term: February 2013 – March 2017)

“If you earnestly desire it, the whole universe will come to help you.” (During the 2015 Brazil Business Forum)

The eldest child of Park Chung-hee, Park Geun-hye was the first woman to become president and the first president to be impeached. She often gave concise answers or strong logical speeches and was proficient in English, Chinese, Spanish and French. During her presidency, major events included the conclusion of the South Korea-China Free Trade Agreement, the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and the decision to deploy THAAD. 

She was impeached in March 2017 in the wake of the “Choi Soon-sil Gate” scandal, sentenced to 20 years in prison. She was pardoned by her successor, Moon Jae-in, in December 2021. The impeachment still generates considerable controversy, and there is heated debate over whether she committed crimes worthy of a 20-year sentence. North Korean defectors were shocked by the reality of a conservative president of South Korea being imprisoned.

Yoon Suk-yeol (May 2022 – April 2027)

“I am loyal (to the nation and the people) not to individuals.” (Statement made during a parliamentary audit on October 22, 2013)

A former chief prosecutor under his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, Yoon is a political neophyte. Facing an opposition-dominated National Assembly, Yoon focused on foreign policy. Before Yoon, Seoul had a long-standing posture of being a junior and sometimes powerless partner in the alliance with America. Previous presidents frequently gave the impression that Korea was bullied into certain positions by the US. Yoon turned his around and declared South Korea to be a democracy that stood by like-minded countries that valued freedom and human rights. 

He has also sought to undo the damage to ties with Japan caused by his predecessor. Yoon has focused on strengthening trilateral cooperation among South Korea, the United States, and Japan in politics, economy, and military affairs. He has advocated for all government officials to act as salespersons for economic development. In January 2023, he attracted a $30 billion investment from the UAE, creating a new Arab boom.

Progressive administrations

Kim Dae-jung (February 1998 – February 2003)

“The people do not always win. But in the end, the people are the winners.” (From his autobiography)

Although a liberal democrat in the American sense, Kim Dae-jung was a prominent, if not the leading,  figure in South Korea’s progressive forces for a long time. He advocated inclusiveness, reconciliation, and coexistence with North Korea. He was evaluated as someone who logically presented his ideas and persuaded others.

Elected when the country was near bankruptcy during the Asian financial crisis, Kim was the first opposition president, thus firming up Korea’s democracy.

He also became the first Korean president to hold an inter-Korean summit when in June 2000 he went to Pyongyantg and met Kim Jong-il. The event electrified the world and earned Kim the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize. He created  a peace momentum on the peninsula.

It only later transpired that South Korea had paid North Korea under-the-table for the summit. Despite the promises to reduce political and military tensions and promote exchanges in the economic and cultural sectors, North Korea’s unilateral non-compliance returned relations to square one.

Also noteworthy under Kim’s rule was the laying of the infrastructure which would make Korea one of the most wired countries in the world. Also, at this time the Korean cultural wave began to roll through China and Japan.

Roh Moo-hyun (February 2003 – February 2008)

Because the damn Constitution prevents (the president from engaging in debate), we should give up.” (From a speech at the Participatory Government Evaluation Forum in June 2007)

Roh Moo-hyun was known for his anti-authoritarianism, communication skills, and firm leadership. A former lawyer, he was also known for his passionate activism. This Roh was truly an “ordinary man.” He was the first opposition candidate to be chosen through an experimental primary system as opposed to by party leaders. As a result, his own party leaders refused to support him and even tried to have him impeached. Roh said that he wouldn’t let life in the Blue House make him forget his roots and that he would still drop by pojangmacha street bars to drink soju with regular folk, a promise he was unable to keep.

Despite the failure of Kim Jong-il to visit Seoul as promised after the 2000 summit, and other warning signs of lack of North Korean interest in real reconciliation, Roh went to Pyongyang and met with Kim Jong-il. Predictably, the summit failed to achieve its stated goals due to North Korea’s unilateral non-compliance, and Roh was criticized for continuing economic support for the regime.

Roh pursued a Free Trade Agreement with Washington and established e-Government. He also made some progress in the historical truth-finding project exposing past collaboration with Japanese colonial rule and crimes of previous pre-democracy administrations. After his term, Roh committed suicide after his family became targeted in a corruption probe.

Moon Jae-in (May 2017 – January 2020)

“People come first.” (Presidential campaign slogan)

Moon Jae-in, fellow human rights lawyer with Roh Moo-hyun and his chief of staff, won the election following Park Geun-hye’s truncated presidency. As far as defectors were concerned, he got off to a bad start using the calligraphy, then being used by a soju brand, of a leftist activist who had been jailed for twenty years under Park Chung-hee. 

Also, despite his background, Moon was silent on North Korean human rights. While there is some tactical logic to pulling punches in this way – criticizing North Korea on human rights grounds is not conducive to reconciliation talks – Moon repatriated defectors accused of crimes by North Korea but not tried in any South Korean court. This was a first for a South Korean government and earned him the title of “Kim Jong-un’s spy” in North Korean defector society.

Kim Yo-jong, sister of Kim Jong-un, attended the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and met with Moon in the Blue House, after which Moon met Kim Jong-un and announced the Panmunjom Declaration, aimed at alleviating political and military tensions and promoting exchanges. Moon visited Pyongyang and told 100,000 citizens at a stadium, “There will be no more war.” As with previous declarations, the Panmunjom Declaration became a non-event due to North Korea’s unilateral non-compliance.

Zane Han

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