A group of North Korean defectors announced that 3,000 of them would seek exile if Moon Jae-in becomes South Korea’s next president.  The group calls itself “Defectors’ Collective Asylum Promotion Committee;” it seems to be an ad hoc organization set up by defectors who  are dead-set against Moon becoming South Korea’s 19th president.  A press conference was held by 20 members of the organization on May 3rd in front of the National Assembly.   Some members of the organization wore black masks to protect their identity.

About 20 defectors (many wearing black masks) held a press conference to announce they would seek exile if Moon is elected. 

Defectors Are Perturbed by Campaign Rhetoric

The group explained some serious concerns they have about Moon.  Some of these concerns stem from Moon’s campaign rhetoric:  Moon used to say that he would “visit North Korea first” rather than the U.S. upon being elected.  However, Moon has since taken this statement back and said he realizes the importance of the U.S.-ROK alliance; therefore, he would visit the U.S. first.

But defectors are also rankled by Moon’s comment made during a candlelight vigil held in Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon Square: Moon said he would “burn away the last remnants of South Korea’s pseudo-conservatives.”  This is a metaphor and what Moon said on November 26th, 2016,  was that he considers “pseudo-conservatives” to be those who “avoid paying taxes, use false address listings … engage in defense scandals that overcharge taxpayers for military equipment purchased, and use power and privileges to receive bribes.”  That was the context of Moon wanting to burn “pseudo-conservatives”; he did not literally mean that they should be piled up and set on fire.

Nonetheless, the group is perturbed by other similar comments. On April 30th at a campaign rally, Minjoo Party member Lee Hae-chan said the party will soon be in a position to “totally exterminate conservatives.”  Lee Hae-chan is a high-profile legislator who served as South Korea’s 36th prime minister during the Roh administration.  He was also Kim Dae-Jung’s education minister from  1998 to 1999.  Lee said, “If [Minjoo] takes over this time, we have a ‘murderer’s row’ of candidates that will succeed Moon:  Ahn Hee-jung; Lee Jae-myung; Park Won-soon, etc.  We will reign for the longest haul and conservatives will surely be totally exterminated.” At the time, some conservatives did react to Lee’s half-threatening language. Liberty Korea’s presidential candidate Hong Joon-Pyo said, “That gives me chills. That reminds me of Cambodia’s Killing Fields.

Minjoo member Lee Hae-Chan said, "If we take over, it will be for the long haul and we'll completely exterminate conservatives."

At first blush, these charges seem frivolous; these are metaphors and partisan rhetoric uttered in the heat of the election campaign.  But someone like Lee Joo-Seong, the group’s spokesman, is genuinely concerned.  He finds these comments to signal hostility to defectors: “South Korea is our home base and a haven for us defectors.”  “This 19th General Election is giving us some time to once again to reflect on our identity as defectors and wonder whether this is truly our home base.  We came here risking our lives but it’s becoming difficult to stay alive in South Korea.

Lee invites South Korean voters to consider Moon’s rhetoric: “Let’s take a look at Moon’s past utterances and even what he said recently. As a defector and representing a human rights organization made up of defectors, it’s chilling listening to these remarks and feeling the glances of those who share Moon’s viewsWe defectors feel like we are standing before an executioner.  That’s why we are trembling.”

Defector Lee Joo-Seong, one of the group's organizers, voices his antipathy towards Moon, who served as Roh Moo-Hyun's chief of staff.

Specific Charges Against Roh’s Chief of Staff, Moon Jae-in

But does Lee and his organization have any substantives charges against Moon?  Lee does point to Moon’s involvement in 2 specific incidents.  Both took place when Moon presided as Roh Moo-Hyun’s chief of staff from 2003 to 2008.   Some feel that these incidents led to defectors being sent back to North Korea, resulting in execution for some.

  • On February 8th, 2008, 22 North Koreans came across the Northern Limit Line (NLL) on two rubber boats.  The group included 2 children.  They were rescued by the South Korean Navy but the Roh administration sent these people back to North Korea within 12 hours of their discovery.  Kim points out that they were “forcibly repatriated”.   The Roh administration treated the group as those who accidentally got stranded than those trying to defect.  According to South Korean news outlets, some or all of the 22 people were subsequently executed upon return, .  Kim points out that Moon acted as Roh’s chief of staff and took lead in repatriating these defectors.
22 North Koreans defectors were rescued by South Korea's Navy, only to be repatriated 12 hours later, according to defectors.

  • The Roh administration issued citizenship cards to defectors that that are easily identifiable by anyone:  the numbers end in “125” for male defectors and “225” for female defectors. This led to defectors who visit China to take part in anti-North Korean demonstrations or to meet their relatives to be arrested by Chinese security or North Korea’s State Security Department.  Between 2005 and 2007, nearly 1,000 defectors who settled in South Korea disappeared while visiting China.  Once again, Moon was behind this policy and was indifferent to concerns that they could be singled out and kidnapped in China.

It’s not so clear if the above charges are true.  We will examine the controversy surrounding these charges and see if we can discern what may have happened in a future article.  This was nearly 10 years ago but there is enough paper trail to at least figure out if these assertions are credible.

Treatment of Defectors During Pro-Engagement Administrations

One thing that is true, however, is that the Kim Dae-Jung and the subsequent Roh Moo-Hyun administrations were at least indifferent, if not hostile, to the plight of North Korean defectors.  The late Hwang Jang-yop was the highest-ranking defector to leave Pyongyang and the architect of North Korea’s Juche ideology.   Upon his defection in February 1997, then president Kim Young-sam offered to accord him treatment equal to South Korea’s cabinet minister and support Hwang’s anti-North Korea activism.

Upon Kim Dae-jung’s election and with the onset of his Sunshine policy toward North Korea, however, such promises evaporated and things changed completely.  When Hwang criticized the proposed summit with North Korea, the National Intelligence Service (NIS), South Korea’s CIA-equivalent, denied Hwang access to South Korean media outlets and prevented him from conducting lectures and publishing his views.   Hwang was effectively “gagged by the Kim administration to avoid upsetting the northern regime.”  While this was done purportedly to ensure safety, Hwang and his supporters feel it was driven by the desire not to infuriate the North Korean regime.

The late Hwang Jang-yop was "gagged" and "persecuted" by South Korea's two pro-engagement administrations; Hwang actually thought the NIS would kill him and considered seeking asylum in the U.S.

Hwang actually thought the NIS would murder him and considered seeking asylum in the U.S., according to Kim Duk-hong, Hwang’s friend who defected with him in 1997: “In July 2001, [Hwang] said there are realistic chances that the NIS might murder us.  So we may have to choose between seeking asylum in the U.S.  or publicizing the threat to South Korea’s media outlets.”  At the time, Hwang was invited to visit the U.S. by conservative Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. But the NIS, who was in charge of his security detail, again, opposed the move.

These charges are disputed by Kim Dae-Jung’s supporters, who claim it was the U.S. that denied him access, as his security detail had to be extensive to protect him.  This is hard to believe: Hwang was probably denied access to venues because of the Sunshine policy in place — allowing the most prominent figure to ever defect to South Korea to make anti-North Korean statements while visiting the U.S. could push Kim Jong Il over the edge, possibly scuttling the policy of rapprochement in place.

Defectors’ Statement for Seeking “Collective Asylum”

Lee Ae-Ran is a prominent defector and one of the organizers of the press conference.  She explained that the number 3,000 is based on those who gathered informally on short notice.  “But If we make a formal announcement, more than half of the 30,000 defectors residing in South Korea may take steps to seek asylum … If Moon is elected, these defectors would try to seek exile in Western countries with free market economies like the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom, where their freedom would be guaranteed.”

One can grasp Lee’s anguish as she exhorts her supporters to vote for Hong Joon-Pyo of the Liberty Korea Party, who embraces the traditional, hard-line stance toward North Korea.  Lee is a tireless advocate for defector causes and feels genuinely threatened by Moon’s engagement agenda.

Lee Ae-Ran has said she will seek exile if Moon becomes president. 

Here’s the full text of the statement released by the Defectors’ Collective Asylum Promotion Committee. This was not translated into English by Noon in Korea; the organization released this English translation on its own.

We – 3,000 North Korean defectors who escaped the slave-like life led under the North Korean regime marked by a three-generation hereditary power succession, declare our willingness to collectively seek asylum if Moon jae-in is elected president of the Republic of Korea.

During the end of the Roh Moo-hyun administration on Feb. 8th of 2008, the administration forced repatriation of 22 North Korean defectors who arrived in South Korea on rubber boats. This happened 10 hours after their arrival in the South and as a result of the repatriation, all of them were executed upon returning to North Korea.

Also, the Korean resident registration numbers given to North Korean defectors by the Roh Moo-hyun government was easily distinguishable, and the government neglected the arrest of defectors of South Korean nationality that were visiting China. They were either activists working to spread the message of freedom to North Korea there or mere visitors who were caught by Chinese police or the North Korean State Security Department.

As a result of this, approximately 1,000 defectors are presumed to have gone missing over a span of 2 years between 2005 to 2007, and we therefore urge the Korean police, Unification Ministry, Ministry of the Interior and related organizations to disclose the list of defectors lost during this period of time.

In addition, a testimony states that at a State Security branch in Cheongjin City in North Korea alone, 219 defectors of South Korean nationality forced to repatriate were either executed or sent to political prison camps. We urge Moon Jae-in, then chief presidential secretary to President Roh Moo-hyun, to clarify what actually happened during that time.

During the Roh Moo-hyun government, North Korean defectors were oppressed and discriminated against in South Korea. For example, defectors working in South Korean firms were pressured to resign after hearing comments such as, “Inter-Korean relations are going well and we don’t want defectors working in our company anymore.” Under these circumstances, we defectors have no choice but to seek collective asylum if Moon Jae-in is elected as president.

If Candidate Moon Jae-in is elected and reforms the National Intelligence Service of Korea which currently maintains the free Republic of Korea regime and abolishes the National Security Law, a team of North Korean assassins could frequently come to South Korea to kidnap or murder defectors. This poses a life-threatening risk for us.

Democratic Party of Korea Candidate Moon Jae-in stated that he will first visit North Korea rather than the U.S. once he is elected, and also stated that he will “burn away conservatives”. Another Democratic Party member Lee Hae-chan said “conservatives need to be wiped out”. We defectors are losing sleep over fear of what can happen to our fate.

Approximately 30,000 defectors have settled down in the Republic of Korea after risking their lives to leave North Korea in search of freedom. Creation of a government that sides with and colludes with North Korea greatly threatens our right to life and existence. If such a government comes into being, we have decided to collectively seek asylum to free democratic countries including the U.S., Japan, the UK and France.

We defectors risked our lives to seek freedom in the Republic of Korea and we have a responsibility to fight for the freedom and human rights of North Korean residents. Yet it is extremely sad and unfortunate to see our right to life and existence threatened and having to make the radical decision of leaving South Korea.

Our dear fellow Koreans, we ask for your help at this critical moment. Please help us defectors who diced with death to escape North Korea in search of freedom in the South.  Help us to remain.”

May 3rd, 2017
Defectors’ Collective Asylum Promotion Committee

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