South Korean President Moon Jae In’s ruling Democratic Party won big in the country’s legislative elections Wednesday, a development that will have a lasting effect on Seoul’s approach toward North Korea, at least through the next election cycle.
The Democratic Party, along with a satellite party it created to compete in proportional representation as a result of new election rules, will control 180 of the 21st National Assembly’s 300 seats.
North Korea was not a key election issue, as most South Koreans are desensitized to Pyongyang’s provocations, and while reunification is defined as a national priority in the South Korean constitution, only 53.7 percent of the country consider it necessary, according to a 2017 poll conducted by Seoul’s Ministry of Unification.
Analysts believe that Moon’s party cleaned up due to South Korea’s relative success in handling of the coronavirus pandemic in comparison to other countries, including in holding the election itself, in which 66.2 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, most of them in-person.
But in backing the Democratic Party again, the South Korean public effectively voted for the continuation of an approach toward North Korea that predominantly focuses on diplomacy.
The Ministry of Unification said in a statement Thursday that the country would maintain its existing policy to enhance inter-Korean cooperation while making efforts to ensure success in U.S.-North Korea talks.
A South Korea-based expert interpreted the statement to mean that the South will maintain what critics call its passive stance on North Korean human rights.
“The North Korean Human Rights Act itself may not be in operation," Yoo Dong-ryul, the director of the Korea Institute of Liberal Democracy, told RFA’s Korean Service, referring to the South’s legislation.
“Also, the South Korean government and the National Assembly [will have the power to] openly refuse to talk about North Korean human rights issues in the international community,” said Yoo.
“It is feared that the South Korean government will only try to curry favor with the Kim Jong Un regime, while emphasizing peace on the Korean Peninsula on the surface,” Yoo said.
Yoo predicted that the Democratic victory could also mean that South Korea might butt heads with the United States over the role of economic sanctions in efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.
“Once South Korea’s 21st National Assembly opens, the ruling party is expected to pass a resolution calling for the lifting of sanctions against North Korea,” he said.
An official of the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations Thursday said that this might indeed be a possibility.
“I can imagine that the Moon administration might feel like it can push harder on trying to find ways to promote economic integration with North Korea,” said Scott Snyder, director of the CFR’s U.S.-Korea Policy Program during a webinar hosted by the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI).
“That is an issue that potentially can generate some friction with the United States as the U.S. is still committed to sanctions [and] a maximum pressure policy on North Korea so we’ll have to wait and see how that goes,” Snyder said.
But the point might be moot, as another South Korea-based observer said that even if Seoul attempts to improve relations with Pyongyang, it’s unlikely that the North will change its stance of recent years to accommodate the South.
“We are in a situation where improved relations with the U.S. and talks are regarded as North Korea’s [goal],” Ko Young-hwan of the Institute for National Security Strategy told RFA Thursday in Seoul.
“Although the ruling party won the parliamentary election, analyses predict that North Korea will not pay attention to the South Korean government. Former North Korean leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, saw inter-Korean and North Korea-Japan relations as mere variables in [the much more important] U.S.-North Korea relations,” said Ko.
Snyder also noted that North Korean leadership has shown a lack of interest in smoothing things over with the South.
“I do think that the strong position of president Moon makes him a more authoritative potential interlocutor for North Korea,” he said.
“It’s really a question of whether Kim Jong Un sees any benefit from trying to go down that road, because so far he has not,” said Snyder.
Thae wins Gangnam seat
Also notable in the election was the victory of former high-ranking North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho who won a seat in the assembly representing the opposition United Future Party in Seoul’s wealthy Gangnam district.
Thae, who defected while serving as Pyongyang’s deputy ambassador to the U.K. in 2016, won his race with more than 58 percent of the vote, becoming the first such defector to win a constituency in the assembly.
Ji Seong-ho, another former North Korean, who escaped the North in 2006, also won an assembly seat in a satellite party aligned with the opposition.
“Mr. Thae sent us a strong message that a defector can actually participate in the South Korean Politics by becoming a lawmaker representing a constituency,” said Ji Hyun Park, co-founder of the U.K.-based Stepping Stones, an organization advocating for human rights in North Korea.
“I hope Mr. Thae will live up to the expectations of North Korean defectors in South Korea by raising the issue of North Korean human rights in the South Korean National Assembly and show leadership in representing the North Korean defectors,” Park told RFA.
Though human rights organizations outside of Korea would classify Thae as a defector and Ji as a refugee, in the Korean language they are both referred to by a catch-all term that has come to describe those in both situations.
“Former Minister Thae and Mr. Ji Seong Ho belonged to a totally different social class in North Korea one being the elite class and the other belonging to the lowest class. The fact that they both have become assemblymen in South Korea sends a very positive message to North Koreans that any of them can have the opportunity to become a politician after the unification of the Korean Peninsula,” Park added.
North Korean refugee Joseph Kim, who now resides in the U.S., said on Twitter Thursday, “Former North Korean refugees Thae Yong Ho and Ji Seong Ho won in the 2020 election in South Korea. While each comes from two different backgrounds, both share a common desire - freedom.”
“Congratulations to both of you! It is my sincere hope that your shared desire & aspiration for a free N. Korea would unite all of us to build a better and stronger community.”
Ambassador Robert King, the former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean human rights issues also lauded Thae’s victory.
“I think it’s significant that he was able to be elected in South Korea. It certainly indicates that there are opportunities for people who want to serve in the South Korean parliament,” he told RFA.
“The fact that the people in Mr. Thae’s constituency were willing to vote for him in a free, open and fair election and Mr. Thae was successful in winning certainly says the people in South Korea are interested in and concerned about the policy toward North Korea and about the way people are treated in North Korea,” he said.
Suzanne Scholte, President of the Defense Forum Foundation and a supporter of North Korean refugees, said: “I have always believed that those who have lived under tyranny understand better the cherished values of democracy and human rights.”
“But, also imagine what his election will mean to people in North Korea especially those who serve the Kim regime who wonder if there is any life for them should the regime collapse. This clearly shows they could have a future in a unified Korea if they stop supporting a regime that is committing crimes against humanity every day,” she said.
Hee Jung Yang, Yewon Ji, and Yong Jae Mok contributed to this report. Translation by Leejin Jun and Hee Jung Yang.