Park Choong-kwon: North Korean defector elected in South Korea

Image caption, Park Choong-kwon, 37, defected to South Korea in 2009 after graduating from university where he worked on building the North’s nuclear missiles

  • Author, Frances Mao
  • Role, BBC News

As a young man, Park Choong-Kwon helped build the nuclear missiles that his homeland, North Korea, blasted off from time to time to threaten the West.

Now he sits in its democratic neighbour’s legislature – a member of South Korea’s parliament elected just this week.

When people migrate from authoritarian regimes to liberal democracies, they dream of a better life, of opportunities. A refugee becoming a lawmaker, or even one day president? It’s possible.

But for a North Korean, it’s extraordinary. Park, at age 37, is just the fourth escapee ever to become a parliamentarian in the South.

“I came to South Korea with nothing,” he told the BBC earlier this week, “and now I’ve entered the political arena.

“I see all of this as the power of our liberal democracy and I think it’s all possible because our citizens made it happen. It is a miracle and a blessing.”

For North Korean watchers, it’s also a sign of progress.

“There are tens of thousands of North Koreans who voted with their feet, voted against the oppression of that regime with their lives – some lost – but others didn’t, and the world is benefiting from them,” says Sandra Fahy, an associate professor at Carleton University in Ottawa who’s researched life in North Korea.

“Who better to understand the importance of democratic representation and political engagement than those who have lived in a world where it was forbidden?”

Park escaped the clutches of the North Korean state a decade and a half ago when he was 23, having breathed not a word of his plans to his parents and other family members. It was too risky, and if they had known, that could have put them in peril, he says.

He had spent his last three years embedded in the National Defense University – one of the elite students seen as the next generation entrusted with developing the North’s nuclear weapons technology.

While relatively sheltered in the capital, he had grown up in the North in the 1990s, the period of massive famine in the country where millions died and desperate citizens turned to black market goods.

But he was exposed to life outside – through South Korean TV shows smuggled in and study abroad in China, where his fixation on new ideas drew scrutiny from his minders.

By the time he graduated university, he told Korean media, he had realised “how completely wrong and corrupt the North Korean regime was”.

So he hatched his plan and waited.

The release came one day in April 2009. North Korea that day had just managed to successfully launch its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) – the very same weapon he had toiled away for years on building. The whole country was “in a celebratory mood”; he saw the opportunity and slipped away the next morning under the cover of the jubilant noise.

Getting out was an ordeal of course – he chose the faster but vastly more expensive route to China, which cost nearly 10 million won (£5,800 pounds; $7,300). Despite the cost, the fake passport provided by the broker was a shoddy certificate.

But in a interview with NK News last year, he recalled the moment he realised he was potentially free. Clambering onto the Chinese-side banks of the Tumen River, there was a mingled sense of freedom and loss – leaving him feeling like an “international orphan”.

Another life-changing moment came some time later when he received his South Korean passport – one of the happiest moments of his life, he says.

Compared to many other defectors from the North, about 35,000 of whom have settled in the South since the 1990s, Park adapted quickly to his new life, a challenge smoothed out by his elite background and education.

He was accepted into the country’s most prestigious university – Seoul National University – where he earned a PhD in materials science and engineering, and then landed a highly coveted job at Hyundai Steel, one of the South’s powerhouse conglomerates.

And then the president’s party came knocking.

Park told the BBC he hadn’t ever considered entering politics, but when the People Power Party reached out, he felt he wanted to give back through public service.

As the number two delegate on the ruling party’s list for proportional voting seats, he was essentially guaranteed a spot in Wednesday’s elections – no matter how unfavourable the turnout. The results in the end were terrible for the deeply unpopular President Yoon Suk-yeol and his ruling PPP.

But Park is forward-facing and has big plans now as an elected lawmaker.

In the South’s previous parliament, there had already been two sitting North Korean members – both with significant profiles. Thae Yong-ho, who represents the luxury district of Gangnam, was formerly a North Korean ambassador to the UK who famously defected in 2016 during his London stint.

The other is rights activist Ji Seong-ho, who lost his left arm and leg as a young teenager in 1996 when he and his starving family were stealing coal from a train. He fainted from hunger and fell through a gap between the train cars; the wheels ran over him. He later managed an escape from North Korea on crutches.

Those representatives have long sought to improve the situation for their fellow defectors.

Many say while they may have a new lease on life since arriving in the South, it’s tinged with a feeling of being treated like second-class citizens.

That pushed Ji into running for office in 2020, campaigning on the rights of North Koreans, after a case where defectors accused of smuggling were forcibly returned by South Korean officials.

A year earlier, an impoverished North Korean mother and daughter were found dead in their apartment in Seoul, having reportedly starved to death.

Park says one of his first aims is improving the support given to North Koreans when they arrive in the South – and he’s pushing for lifelong packages. He says since the flow of new arrivals slowed to a trickle due to pandemic border closures, the budget should be re-allocated.

He also wants to leave his mark on inter-Korean relations.

And in that vein, he’s heartily endorsed his president’s current hawkish attitude towards dealing with the North and Kim Jong-un’s increased missile provocations.

While some say the North has reacted because it was spooked by Yoon pursuing closer relationships with the US and Japan, Park dismisses that theory.

“Some people think that since the Yoon government came in, the threat of war has increased. But it’s not true – the provocations were stronger under the previous administration,” he told the BBC.

He points out the North’s missile launches and weapons development increased during President Moon Jae-in’s administration – which sought a more conciliatory approach to engaging with North Korea.

But appeasement must not be the approach taken, he argues: “Blocking North Korea’s provocations is the most important priority, and that will lead to reducing the threat of war.”

He believes in eventual reunification between the two halves of the peninsula. This is despite Kim Jong-un this year taking concerted steps to stamp out that prospect: branding the South as the enemy state and reportedly blowing up a massive arch symbolising the two Koreas coming together in the future.

But Park is undeterred. He’s determined to “play a role as a bridge” in the South Korean government.

“I want to help South Koreans view North Korea’s regime and its people separately, fostering a mindset conducive to unification.”

Read More:Park Choong-kwon: North Korean defector elected in South Korea

2024-04-12 23:29:31

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