SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The highest-level North Korean diplomat to defect to South Korea will join its main opposition party and run in April parliamentary elections, party officials said Monday.
Thae Yong Ho, a former minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, came to South Korea in 2016 with his family. He since has given media interviews and written articles highly critical of North Korea’s authoritarian government, led by Kim Jong Un.
The conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party announced Monday that Thae has decided to join the party and run in a Seoul constituency in the April 15 election.
“His courage and decision will give hope to North Korean refugees and other South and North Korean people who are wising for genuine unification,” Kim Hyong-o, head of a party committee on candidate selections, told reporters, according to his party.
An organization that represents Thae didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request to confirm the party’s announcement.
If Thae is elected, he would become the second North Korean defector to win a seat in South Korea’s single-chamber National Assembly. Former North Korean Cho Myung-Chul, who came to South Korea in 1994, served as a proportional representative for a predecessor of the Liberty Korea Party from 2012 to 2016.
It’s rare for senior North Korean officials to defect to South Korea. 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.
Thae, 57, is the most senior North Korean diplomat who has defected to South Korea. The highest-level North Korean to seek asylum in South Korea is Hwang Jang-yop, a senior ruling Workers’ Party official who once tutored Kim Jong Un’s father, late leader Kim Jong Il. Hwang died in 2010.
After coming to Seoul, Thae told reporters that he decided to flee because he didn’t want his children to live “miserable” lives in North Korea and he was disappointed with Kim Jong Un. Thae said he initially had some hopes for Kim but eventually fell into “despair” after watching him execute officials and pursue development of nuclear weapons.
North Korea has called Thae “human scum” and accused him of embezzling government money and committing other crimes.