A high-profile North Korean defector has announced he will run in South Korea’s upcoming parliamentary elections.
Thae Yong Ho, a former minister at the North Korean embassy in London, is the most senior diplomat from the North to defect to South Korea.
Since his arrival in Seoul in 2016, Mr Thae has openly criticised North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions and expressed scepticism over Mr Kim’s denuclearisation commitment made during talks with US President Donald Trump.
Mr Thae told reporters on Tuesday that he decided to run in the April 15 elections on the ticket of the conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) after agonising over how to contribute to South Korea with his knowledge of North Korea.
Mr Thae said he has found an acute divide in how South Koreans view the North is a major obstacle to unification and that he was frustrated with what he called “a wrong direction” that South Korea’s liberal government has taken on its North Korean policy.
Mr Thae was referring to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s push to expand ties with North Korea and resume joint economic projects despite a standstill in the US-North Korean nuclear talks.
Mr Moon has said improved inter-Korean ties would help facilitate US-North Korean diplomacy.
“I know about North Korean systems and its government more deeply than anyone else in South Korea,” Mr Thae said.
“I’d like to legislate and realise a practical unification policy based on a free democracy order … rather than just sending unconditional aid to North Korea or taking an unconditional confrontation with it.”
When North Korean ruling elites and residents see him being elected to the South Korean parliament, Mr Thae said it would bring unification “one step closer”.
If Mr Thae is elected, he would become the second North Korean defector to win a seat in South Korea’s National Assembly.
Former North Korean Cho Myung-Chul, who defected to the South in 1994, served as a representative for a predecessor of the LKP from 2012 to 2016.
The LKP said it will field Mr Thae in a Seoul constituency in the election.
It is rare for senior North Korean officials to defect to the South.
About 33,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea in the past two decades, but most are women from rural towns near the border with China who fled to avoid poverty.
After going to Seoul, Mr Thae said that he decided to flee because he did not want his children to live “miserable” lives in North Korea and he was disappointed with Kim Jong Un.
Mr Thae said he initially had some hopes for Mr Kim but eventually fell into “despair” after watching him execute officials and pursue development of nuclear weapons.
North Korea has called Mr Thae “human scum” and accused him of embezzling government money and committing other crimes.