North Korean Defector Wins Election in Posh South Korea District

(Bloomberg) -- One of the highest-ranking North Koreans ever to defect made history by winning a parliamentary election in South Korea, running on a conservative platform where he lambasted both Kim Jong Un and the president of the country he now calls home.

Thae Yong-ho, who once was a top diplomat representing what North Korea calls its “unique socialist political mode,” pulled out the victory in Wednesday’s elections in a Seoul constituency known for its pricey housing, posh stores and plastic surgery clinics made famous by the pop song “Gangnam Style,” which has racked up nearly 3.6 billion views on YouTube.

Thae, who was North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the U.K. before defecting in 2016, has described himself as Kim’s worst nightmare and been a prominent critic since arriving in Seoul. In his campaign, he criticized South Korean President Moon Jae-in, saying he overlooked human rights abuses in the neighbor to the north to pursue feudal hopes for friendly ties.

“I plan to devote the best of my ability so that our parliament and government can face the reality, and implement sustainable and feasible policies on North Korea,” Thae was quoted by Yonhap News Agency as saying Thursday after the victory.

Prior to Thae, the highest level defection came in 1997 when Hwang Jang-yop, an architect of North Korea’s guiding principal of self-reliance known as “juche” made his way to South Korea. Hwang was labeled “human scum” by Pyongyang and lived under constant police protection in South Korea.

Moon’s progressive coalition scored a historic victory in the election held in the throes of the pandemic, making Thae’s win all the more impressive. Gangnam has been a focus of Moon’s policies to rein in real estate speculation by raising taxes on pricey properties. Thae called the taxes excessive and sought support among those who live in luxury high-rises.

Thae told voters that he risked his life to live in South Korea’s democracy and capitalist system, and soundly defeated his progressive opponent, winning nearly 60% of the vote. His critics see him as a proxy for powerful interests in the district that is home to some of the richest people in Seoul but Thae has said he is his own man.

Thae made extensive use of social media for his campaign and even donned a pink hoodie and hat to rap in a video posted on YouTube last week. He also said he wore a bullet proof vest on the campaign trail for protection against any North Korean agents who may have slipped over the border.

The vote in South Korea was a far cry from elections in North Korea, where voting consists of citizens being handed a completed ballot at polling stations and placing the paper in a box -- with penalty of imprisonment for not showing up.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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