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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Feb. 15)

09:06 February 15, 2020

Defector's ambitious bid
: Thae declares candidacy in general election

A high-profile North Korean defector has announced his bid to run in the upcoming April 15 general election. Thae Yong-ho, a former ranking North Korean diplomat, said Tuesday that he will run in a constituency in Seoul for the election. His announcement came one day after he joined the main conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP).

His candidacy is drawing lots of attention as he is the first North Korean defector to run in an election here. A defector from the North served as a legislator under the proportional representation system between 2012 and 2016. He is Cho Myong-chol, a former professor at Kim Il-sung University, who defected to South Korea in 1994.

Thae, if successful, will emerge as a popularly-elected lawmaker. Therefore his ambitious bid for a National Assembly seat carries significant meaning. Running in any election is a challenge for anyone here in the South. It is all the more challenging for anyone from the North. It is particularly difficult for defectors to woo voters because of a lack of a support base.

Yet, considering his vigorous activities since his defection to the South in 2016, Thae may stand a high chance of winning the race on the ticket of the LKP. He worked as a researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy from 2017 to 2018.

He has basked in the media spotlight for his efforts to reveal the true picture of the brutal North Korean regime. He has repeatedly pointed out that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will never give up his nuclear arsenal. He has warned of risks involving denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington.

For this reason, Thae may succeed in appealing to conservative voters who value security more than inter-Korean reconciliation. Announcing his election bid, he promised to work for the unification of the divided nation if elected. As he said, his potential win could give inspiration to the nearly 40,000 defectors from the impoverished North. It could also give hope to North Koreans suffering under the dictatorship. Furthermore his possible election may serve as a catalyst for moving the two Koreas toward unification.

The LKP recruited Thae as part of its efforts to expand its conservative support base in the run-up to the elections. So this is seen as a strategic move to promote conservative causes in a showdown with the liberal Moon Jae-in government and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK).

However, the LKP should be careful not to escalate ideological confrontation with the ruling camp by fielding Thae as a candidate. The conflict between the left and right has already reached a dangerous point which could hamper fair competition among rival candidates.

Under this situation, Thae and his party had better go beyond narrow-minded ideologies and promote universal values including freedom and human rights. Otherwise, they may fail to win the hearts and minds of voters. They also must present policies to root out discrimination against North Korean defectors and better protect their rights. It is also necessary to present new visions for unification with the North and peace on the peninsula.
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