(SEOUL, South Korea) — A boisterous theme song plays in the background as Thae Yong-ho’s campaign truck arrives in the middle of Seoul’s posh Gangnam district’s residential area. Thae is running for a seat in South Korea’s National Assembly elections this Wednesday to represent Gangnam as a member of the opposition conservative United Future Party.
Just four years ago, Thae was a high-ranking North Korean diplomat seeking asylum in South Korea. He is now bowing deep to passersby, handing out name cards, and giving an emotional speech to his curious potential constituencies on his pledge to make South Korea a more democratic country.
Thae announced in front of journalists on Feb. 11 at the National Assembly that he would be running for a seat in the April election. It was a bold move, even considering the fact that he actively voiced his opinions criticism of North Korean and gave lectures upon his settlement in Seoul.
Thae has spent most of the past two weeks meeting citizens both online and in person to persuade voters that he’s suitable representative of the city district. Although more widely known by his given name, Thae Yong-ho, he is running for lawmaker under his pseudonym, Tae Ku-min, a name he adopted upon arrival in South Korea for cyber-security reasons. His new name, Ku-min, has a meaning of “saving people,” a motto that Tae has said he’s determined to live by.
“I run YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. Every 10 o’clock at night, I do live streaming, so that I can reach out to people [on the internet],” Tae told ABC News, speaking in English. He noted that he also conducts online chats around 4 or 5 o’clock with local residents.
A former deputy ambassador at the North Korean embassy in London, Tae caught public attention as he was spotted accompanying Kim Jong Un’s elder brother to an Eric Clapton concert in London in 2015. Tae defected to the South in 2016, stating that he hoped his children would not have to live “miserable lives” in North Korea.
“North Korea is a totalitarian system. There is no such thing as a candidate visiting people, or appealing to get support. Every representative of the assembly is appointed by Kim Jong Un,” Tae said.
It was during a lunch break on a Monday, just two days until the election, when more than 50 residents in the Gangnam area circled around the pink campaign truck to listen to Tae.
“Tae knows the communist regime to the bottom and also has experience working as a diplomat in a democratic country for a long time. I believe that will give him a more objective stance in handling diplomatic issues,” Choi Younghae, a 70-year-old business woman with experience of working at a foreign embassy in her 30s, told ABC News.
“Those who have never listened to Tae talk may have prejudices of a North Korean defector,” Sean Koo, a white-collar worker living in Gangnam, told ABC News. “In his speeches, I can tell that he risked his life to live in a democratic society, and that he will work to retain that.”
Tae acknowledged that there were those who question his qualifications to be a lawmaker in South Korea. Some critics have called Tae a “commie” and questioned whether he still has allegiances to North Korea. Tae directly rebutted those accusations.
“Kim Jong Un is the person who will be most unhappy when I become a lawmaker in South Korea. It does not make sense to call me a ‘commie,’” Tae said during his campaign speech to Gangnam residents.
Tae told ABC News that his participation in the National Assembly can signal hope and new possibilities for the people of North Korea, especially the ruling class. “It can be a new signal to North Korea’s elite and people that South Korea is [an] open and inclusive society, so that in the future, we can be one again.”
“In the past two years and a half, I was very much frustrated by the current policy of the government because South Korea wanted to achieve something by appeasing Kim Jong Un, and that is really wrong,” Tae said.
If Tae wins the race, he would be the first-ever former North Korean official to become an elected lawmaker in South Korea. The election takes place on Wednesday, April 15.
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