May 24, 2024

SEOUL — Park Choong-kwon was once a ballistic missile researcher in North Korea, one of the prized minds entrusted with developing Kim Jong Un’s beloved weapons program.

Next week, he is set to become a South Korean lawmaker, becoming only the fourth escapee from authoritarian North Korea to serve in the democratic South’s legislature. He comes to the task with a mission.

“As a defector, I think I should play a role in inter-Korean relations,” said Park, 38, who is expected to enter the National Assembly in elections to be held Wednesday. He is a candidate for the conservative party led by President Yoon Suk Yeol — who takes a hard line on North Korea — and is set to win through the proportional representation system, which guarantees a party a certain number of seats based on the share of votes cast for the party.

“But I also want to fulfill my role as Park Choong-kwon, a young South Korean man. I want to do both.”

There are currently two North Korean defectors in the National Assembly: Tae Yong-ho, formerly a senior North Korean diplomat who is seeking reelection, and Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean human rights activist who is stepping down.

Park — together with a run by another escapee, Kim Geum-hyok, 32, who was also standing for the conservative party but dropped out after it became clear he would not get in this time — brought attention to the ambition of millennial North Korean escapees who aspire for leadership roles in South Korean society.

The two men want to set the agenda for inter-Korean relations and key issues facing future generations in both Koreas, and to be leaders who bridge the gap between the two halves of the peninsula should they reunify. They want other younger South Koreans to care about reunification, too, even though the majority of their peers say it’s unnecessary.

“I felt there is a certain limitation to how much can be accomplished through civil society alone when it comes to North Korean human rights … but can be accomplished through policymaking institutions,” Kim said, describing what motivated him to pursue politics.

The pair know what they’re talking about.

Park escaped from North Korea when he was 23, after his doubts about the North Korean regime became too much to bear. He had been studying at North Korea’s National Defense University, a training ground for engineers and specialists developing the country’s missile technology, which the regime views as critical to its survival and security.

Kim was one of the few students at the prestigious Kim Il Sung University who were given the opportunity to study abroad. The isolated regime taps top students to bring much-needed expertise from overseas, even though doing so exposes them to the outside world.

But while in China, he embraced outside ideas to the extent that he attracted the attention of North Korean security officials. At the age of 20, he decided to flee.

As members of North Korea’s ultra-elite who had proved their political loyalty to the regime, Park and Kim were afforded elusive privileges and were supposed to lead the future of the repressive country.

“To the extent that the regime was investing in them, they were North Korea’s future,” said Hanna Song, executive director of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, a Seoul-based NGO that works closely with defectors.

They could have continued to live comfortably in the North. But instead, they risked their lives to flee. Now, they are trying to effect change within South Korea’s democratic system and bring their insights as millennials who grew up in both Koreas.

Song said they are showing what is possible when given the freedom to choose how to live one’s life: a right that North Koreans living under a totalitarian state do not enjoy.

“The fact that they’ve used, in a way, their experience in the North to turn that into something that they want [for] a brighter future for the entire Korean Peninsula could send really strong messages to both the North and South Korean young people,” she said.

Park and Kim are among a generation of millennials who grew up in North Korea in the 1990s as capitalism took root in the theoretically communist state. Activists say they are the greatest force for change in North Korea.

They are called the “Jangmadang Generation,” named after the markets that popped up after a devastating famine revealed that the state was unable to provide for its people. Those who survived did so by making, selling or buying food items at the markets.

This group has grown up with access to goods from China and South Korea — including TV shows and movies that opened their eyes to life in a major economy and freer society. They have become more exposed to the outside world and disillusioned with their own government, experts say.

“Even when I was in North Korea, the younger generation’s awareness was changing dramatically,” said Park, who left in 2009.

“When I was in the North, there were a lot of rumors about Kim Jong Un [as the nation’s potential successor]. Other younger North Koreans were a bit skeptical,” Park added. “He is about our age, yet North Korea was spreading rumors that he is a great genius. It was hard to believe.”

The young escapees have had a smoother transition into South Korean society than older defectors who struggled to adapt to capitalism. Many are finding ways to leverage their life experiences for positive change on the Korean Peninsula in various career fields and generate global attention on the plight of North Koreans, Kim said.

“As Jangmadang Generation, we have experiences from life in North Korea that South Korea’s millennials do not,” Kim added. “That means through those insights, we can come up with unique and new ideas.”

But they don’t want to be boxed in under a singular identity as a “defector.” For one, they have both forged dual identities as North Korean-born people who spent most of their adulthood as South Koreans, giving them a unique understanding of life on the Korean Peninsula, they say.

Also, their life experiences are not representative of the vast majority of the 34,000 North Koreans who have resettled in the South since 1998, most of whom are women and have not received university education. Most South Korean youths would also have a hard time relating to the elite education the two men received in both Koreas.

After escaping North Korea across its border with China and arriving in Seoul, Park earned a PhD in materials science and engineering at one of South Korea’s top universities and landed a coveted job as a senior researcher at Hyundai Steel.

In the National Assembly, Park wants to shape science, technology and tax policies that affect the engineering and industrial sectors, which fueled South Korea’s economic rise as a manufacturing powerhouse.

“As someone with experience in South Korea’s industrial sector, I believe innovation in our country’s corporate regulations and labor markets is absolutely necessary,” he said.

But he also said he agrees with Yoon’s hard-line approach toward the North’s provocations and his efforts to strengthen deterrence measures with the United States and Japan.

“North Korea, by its nature, is unable to stop provocations,” he said. “We have to help North Korea ultimately find another exit strategy … and become a normal country” under global standards.

Both men believe the Koreas will reunify, and that preparations must begin now, by studying North Korea’s internal changes carefully and preparing the South Korean public in its views of North Korea and its people.

“The only path to solutions for South Korea’s various problems, including population decline, economic crisis and polarization, is through reunification,” Kim said. “We need to expand our territory and our population, and develop markets.”

Kim — who has built a public persona speaking out about North Korean issues, regularly appearing on television shows and running a YouTube channel, since arriving in South Korea in 2012 — hasn’t been successful this time around.

But politics is where he really wants to shine. He worked on Yoon’s presidential campaign and transition team in 2022, and in 2023 joined the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs as policy adviser.

He already has his eyes on the next election in four years.

“I’m only 32. … I am using this [election cycle] to build experience,” Kim added. “In any case, as long as we don’t give up on democracy, there will always be another election.”

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