Earlier this year, the South Korean National Assembly saw North Korean defector Cho Myung-chul elected as a Member for the first time in its constitutional history. The event had an added emotional significance for many defectors as it coincided with the promotion of Kim Jong-un to First Secretary of the Worker’s Party.
Cho’s first public interview since his election was with New Focus. We talked about what it is like to be a North Korean defector working to improve the lives of North Koreans both inside and outside the country.
New Focus: First of all, congratulations. How do you feel?
Cho: Actually, I’m very nervous about it; I feel have been charged with the reponsibility of advocating for 24,000 North Korean defectors and the rights of those still living under the North Korean regime.
NF: This is the first time a North Korean defector has been elected to the Assembly. In this context, do you have specific legislative aspirations?
Cho: The 24,000 North Korean defectors currently residing in South Korea have endured oppression and abuse from the North Korean regime. They do not arrive with qualifications, they bring no possessions, and have been separated from their loved ones. Even basic technological concepts have to be learnt from scratch. And despite sharing a language, the culture in South Korea is effectively foreign to them. Unless South Korean society makes a special effort to help them settle in, it is almost impossible to integrate successfully.
Yet North Korean defectors are ambassadors of the future: their successful settlement and integration into the world is a present microcosm of the eventuality that will come when the rest of North Korea integrates into the world. In practical terms, North Korea cannot integrate with South Korea as long as North Korean exiles cannot integrate into South Korean society. For this reason, I would like to actively focus on reforming the legal, financial, political, cultural and social conditions for North Korean defectors’ successful integration into society.
I want to foster an environment in which defectors can work together. Currently defector-run organisations receive no funding or official support, and instead, there are obstacles that inhibit their activities. It is the same situation as with New Focus. Willpower alone is not enough; the South Korea government needs to pass a North Korean Human Rights Policy and show support for these kinds of organisations.
In addition, I want to devote my efforts to creating educational, rehabilitation and medical opportunities for defectors. The latter is especially important not only due to the fact that defectors have had poor healthcare and nutrition, but also because this is not only about those who have escaped: it pertains to the wider integration of North Koreans into the society of the world.
NF: Even recently, the North Korean regime has issued accusations and insults against you. Do you have a message for them?
Cho: The North Korean regime considers the entire world to be their enemy. This is because their actions are inherently incompatible with the principles agreed to by the rest of the world. Accordingly, we see the North Korean regime as a problem because they flagrantly disregard the very basic rights that the world has agreed to safeguard.
Moreover, any well-meaning request to improve their human rights record is interpreted only as a direct threat to the regime – this underlies what is wrong with the system. This is a regime that celebrated the new dictatorship with a missile display designed to send a message of hostility to the world.
There are many paths we could take to improve the North Korean problem. Yet one of the most important steps is also one of the most neglected: to let the world know what goes inside North Korea, what actually happens to the people who live inside the system. In this way, when another bombastic statement or display is issued by the regime, the world won’t continue reporting it at face value. We need to work on establishing an environment where we can urge for an improvement on human rights in international solidarity.
NF: You were highly educated in North Korea. How will you use this background to your advantage?
Cho: I want to create a space of discussion in which different kinds of knowledge can be contributed by specialists in each field, all working towards a reasoned solution to the North Korean problem. Even if a government comes up with a good policy, it won’t succeed in a democracy if the citizens are not part of it. In this regard, I admire your work because instead of responding to partisan fighting you focus on education first by getting the North Koreas story out. Finally, I want to take the lead in proposing policies whereby the North Korean people will benefit from it, instead of the North Korean regime.
NF: If you continue to support defectors’ rights and propose a bill of North Korean human rights, the North Korea regime will increase the pressure against you. You may even be attacked by political groups in South Korea who are very much opposed to any criticism of the North Korean regime, for fear of them suspending engagement. Are you worried?
Cho: I am not worried. I wish only to do what is right, having lived in North Korea. Any Member of the Assembly who turns a blind eye to the abuses of the North Korean regime does not represent Koreans. We point out their wrongdoing not to attack the North Korean regime, but because what is at stake are the very basic human rights of my countrymen. What better thing can a Member do than speaking the truth on behalf of the most vulnerable and oppressed?
NF: There are many more female defectors at present than male, at around 68%. Do you have specific proposals for them?
Cho: It certainly indicates the direction in which we must go. I have met with many female defectors and learnt that they have more obstacles than male defectors to finding work. Determination is of course important, but there are less obvious barriers such as childcare, sexual discrimination, lower wages and so on. If female defectors can successfully integrate into society, male defectors will have benefited too.
NF: You graduated from Kim Il-sung University, whose alumni have gone on, and still go on, to fill the ranks of the North Korean political elite. Do you have a message for the students?
Cho: The North Korean regime effectively uses its people as human shields as the prime method of prolonging power. The educated elite must take a lead in bring change to this diseased system.
NF: Finally, do you have a message for fellow North Korean defectors?
Cho: There are only a few of us, but I know that we did not choose to defect in search of a better life; each of us were exiled by dire and forceful circumstances. Having escaped from the regime, we must to our utmost to enjoy our human rights and exercise them: this will be the ultimate victory over a regime whose goal was to stamp our humanity out.