Why are North Korean defectors conservative?

The left image shows then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in holding hands with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un as they cross the Military Demarcation Line at Panmunjom on Apr 27, 2018. The right image shows one of two North Korean sailors being forcefully repatriated through Panmunjom on Nov 7, 2019. They allegedly admitted to killing 16 other sailors in their unit and had expressed an intention to defect to the South (Image: Ministry of Unification of South Korea).

Nine out of ten North Korean defectors in South Korea support conservative parties. 

In National Assembly elections in 2012, for example, the turnout among defectors was 76% compared to the 54% national average. Around 87% of supported conservative candidates, a figure significantly higher than the nationwide share of 55%.

This strong backing of conservatives appears to stem from their preference for liberal democracy and market economy, resentment towards the North Korean regime, and belief that critics of conservative parties are anti-democratic.

From personal experience, it seems to me that few defectors are indifferent about politics. Most support a specific party. The concept of “party identification” in political science helps explain this. It refers to a tendency of some people to feel a strong connection with a specific political group and incorporate the values and policies into their identity. 

Another useful idea is the theory of “reactive ethnicity,” which proposes that immigrants settling into a new society feel the need to strengthen their cultural identity when they experience discrimination or exclusion. They come to support a party or movement that protects their rights and advocates for the interests of their group.

So, why conservatives? This orientation is related to the specific characteristics of Korean politics.

The terms right and left have been used in politics since revolutionary France in the late 18th century. At that time, those advocating rapid reforms sat on the left of the assembly and those favoring more gradual reforms sat on the right. 

This left-right split also applies to South Korean politics, but with one important distinction. While elsewhere progressives on the left advocate for equality and conservatives on the right prioritize liberty, in Korea the key differentiating factor is North Korea.

Ever since its liberation from Japanese rule after World War Two, the Korean peninsula has been ideologically split between the rightist South and leftist North. As this national division endured, parties within South Korea became distinguished by how they viewed North Korea and proposed to deal with it. 

Thus, the current ruling party of Yoon Suk-yeol is seen as conservative and the main opposition Democratic Party is considered progressive.

The support of North Korean defectors for the conservative side is related to these political concepts. 

They find those belonging to the progressive camp to be very cold towards them and unconcerned about their rights. 

When I ask why they voted conservative, defectors invariably cite the forced repatriation of defectors, removal of the ban on leaflet distribution to North Korea, and interest in North Korean human rights.

The forced repatriation explanation refers to an incident in 2019 when two defectors were sent back across the border via Panmunjom against their will and at the request of North Korea, despite expressing a desire to defect. At the time, the government sought to conduct the repatriation secretly, but the plan was exposed. 

“I heard about that in my hometown,” said Lee, who lived in Songpyong district of Chongjin and came South in 2020. “People said the two men had killed the other people on their fishing boat when they defected. They are in the weaker position, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they were falsely accused. I was worried because I was preparing to defect myself.”

Lee said he was scared of being forcibly repatriated. 

“It’s important to have noble reasons for political positions. But I just can’t support those who want to impress North Korea, when it’s a country I couldn’t even survive in. Rather than supporting conservatism, I support those within the conservative camp who show interest in North Korean human rights issues and are less likely to forcibly repatriate us.”

Regarding this distinction, Chae, a defector now at university, admitted that he didn’t like being told that North Koreans are politically conservative.

“I came to understand why people support conservatism politically,” she said. “Just as personal values become ideologies for conservative and progressive politicians, political tendencies also stem from personal experience. I think the same applies to North Koreans. I think it would be difficult for them to support parties that antagonize North Korean defectors or disregard their rights.”

She said she was shocked by the ban in South Korea by the previous progressive government on people sending leaflets into North Korea, which was apparently made in response to a demand by Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of Kim Jong-un.  

“I don’t know much about the North Korean leaflets, but if Kim Yo-jong is paying attention to them to that extent, it means North Korea is concerned about them,” she said. “Those who belong to the left, who fight for human rights and democratization, should naturally be more proactive in ensuring the right of the people in North Korea to know about the outside world, even through leaflets. It was really difficult to understand that they were blocking it. I understand why the term ‘pro-North’ is associated with the left.”

The law was struck down by the constitutional court in 2023.

“In a free democratic country, defectors should be able to follow different political ideologies,” she said. “But the identity of being a defector cannot be changed.”

When Chae went to a protest against forced repatriation and revealed she was a defector, someone who supported repatriation told her, “You’re not a defector, you’re a traitor.” 

“I defected with the determination to live more freely, so why does this make me a traitor? The fact is that speaking about North Korean human rights or opposing forced repatriation has become the language of the conservatives,” she said. 

“I understand that Moon Jae-in was a human rights lawyer but his administration did not co-sponsor the UN Human Rights Council’s North Korea human rights resolution, which has the potential to improve things in North Korea,” she noted. “The reason given was for the peaceful relationship with North Korea. But the relationship has not improved at all.”

She admitted she was scared of the left-wing camp in South Korea. 

“Korean defectors do not support conservative parties because they are conservative,” she said. “I think it is because the left-wing camp forces them to.”

Lee Jia

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