North defectors coalesce to raise political profile

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North defectors coalesce to raise political profile

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An Chan-il

Ahead of the April legislative election, North Korean defectors in the South are preparing to elect a defector-turned-lawmaker to represent their minority voice.

A group of defectors yesterday attended a rally held by a new political party in Yeouido, western Seoul, where approximately 1,000 people gathered to announce the beginning of the party.

The party, with its temporary name “Thinking People,” aims to become what they deem as “centrist.” With members from both ends of the political spectrum, they are running on the platform of a “merger of rational liberals and reformist conservatives.”

The two founders of the party - Park Se-il, a well-known conservative scholar, and Chang Ki-pyo, chairman of the neo-liberal Green Social Democratic Party - plan to have about 200 candidates run in April’s election and hope to have a third of them win parliamentary seats.

A series of elite North Korean defectors joined the party and attended the rally yesterday, such as: An Chan-il, the first North Korean defector who earned a doctorate degree in the South and chairs the World Institute For North Korea Studies; Jung Sung-san, director of a famous film about North Korea’s concentration camp, “Yodok Stories;” Lee Yun-keol, chairman of the North Korea Strategic Information Service Center; Jang Jin-sung, co-chairman of the New Focus, the first newspaper in the South for North Korean defectors; Kim Tae-jin, chief of the Free NK Gulag; and Kim Song-min, founder of Free North Korea Radio.

“I spent 20 years in a North Korean prison as ‘traitor’,” Cho Su-ah, a North Korean defector who is attending the Seoul National University’s College of Medicine for a master’s degree, said in a speech at the rally.

“Now, I’m free from the suppression. My dream is to become a health minister of South Korea so that I can resolve starvation and disease in the North when the two Koreas are reunified.”

According to the Ministry of Unification, the number of North Korean defectors into the South has been gradually increasing, from 947 in 1998 to 2,737 in 2011, totaling 23,100 so far.

Half of them are in their 20s or 30s and 88 percent were jobless or laborers in the North. Seventy percent graduated from North Korean high schools, and 17 percent attended vocational colleges or universities. More than half are living in Seoul, Incheon, or Gyeonggi now.

With the growing number of defectors, the ministry yesterday said that it has allotted more of the budget for them, from 60 billion won ($52 million) in 2011 to 75 billion won this year. Starting this year, the ministry will also launch a system to manage the personal information of defectors.


By Kim Hee-jin [heejin@joongang.co.kr]

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