Rookie Saenuri Party lawmaker Ha Tae-keung has one main aim ― supporting North Korean rights.
One of a swath of outsiders recruited by the ruling party to run in the April parliamentary elections, Ha’s career path and political beliefs set him apart from his contemporaries.
In the 1980s he was an active member of a student group which was praised for its pro-democracy activism but condemned for the pro-North Korea stance of its core leadership. He later became a fervent crusader against the North Korean regime and its human rights abuses.
When he decided to run on the conservative party’s ticket in a constituency in Busan, he had to face criticisms over his change of positions.
“Many call my decision a political conversion but this is not true. My ultimate goal has always been to defend democracy,” Ha told The Korea Herald.
“I prioritized promoting democratic values for the North Korean people once I found out the poor human rights conditions in the communist country.”
|The Saenuri Party’s lawmaker-elect Ha Tae-keung. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)|
With his deep knowledge of North Korea and resolve to democratize the despotic regime, he is expected to push to overcome what critics call the legislature’s inertia about the North Korean populace’s suffering.
“My top priority, once the 19th parliamentary term kicks off, is to have the North Korean human rights bill passed and also to seek the international community’s cooperation on the issue,” he said.
Since 2005, Ha has led the Open Radio for North Korea, the first official radio channel here to send news of the outside world to the isolated communist state.
He also has participated in non-governmental activities to shine a light on the North Korea’s atrocities.
In 2009 he also published Open Communication for North Korea, a newsletter delivering North Korea’s current affairs to the South and to the international community.
One reason he ran for the parliament was the limitation he felt as a civil activist, especially while a North Korean human rights bill was pending in the National Assembly, resisted by progressive liberals and taken hostage by partisan struggles over unrelated issues.
“So far, I have been on one side making petitions and relaying claims to the legislature, but now will stand on the other side of the pivot,” he said.
He initially resolved to run as an independent candidate and challenge what he calls pro-communist figures, such as the members of the Unified Progressive Party.
It was then that the Saenuri Party (then Grand National Party) invited him to join in an effort to reverse its declining prospects in the parliamentary elections.
“Not only did the party show sincere efforts to renew itself, it also pledged support for promoting North Korean democracy at the parliamentary level,” Ha said.
Joining the right-wing party, whose predecessor he fought in his 20s would have been unthinkable once.
Like many progressive students, Ha devoted himself to democratic, labor and unification movements in the 1980s.
“I firmly believed that inter-Korean amity was crucial in achieving unification,” he said.
“I, however, did not know about North Korea’s concentration camps and the brutal torture of political prisoners.”
It was only after the mid-1990s that he learned of the gloomy reality of the communist state. Ha spent two and a half years in China, meeting a number of North Korean defectors.
“Democracy used to be a somewhat vague theory to me, but started to take detailed shape as I shared their painful experiences and faced the undemocratic stance of the communist government,” he said.
In the late 1990s, South Korea’s democracy made visible progress after the Kim Dae-jung administration took power and as the country’s relations with the international community expanded.
“It seemed to me that democracy and human rights protection were more desperately needed for the North than the South,” he explained.
Democracy in North Korea is something that can be achieved by protecting North Korean residents from violent oppression, not by simply cooperating with the communist regime, he added.
Ha also spoke about the far-left UPP and its ongoing strife over the vote-rigging scandal and pro-communist allegations. The activist was once a member of the National Liberation group that forms its mainstream faction.
“In the past, we shared the common goal of achieving peaceful unification and promoting democracy,” he said.
“However, I could no longer agree with the extremists who would blindly advocate for the North Korean regime.”
It is the National Liberation group which later formed the UPP’s controversial mainstream group.
“There are two major factors which hinder the development of democracy in Korea ― the pro-communist leftist group and the corrupt right-wing powers,” said Ha.
“I considered the former to be a greater threat, and made up my mind to enter politics.”
The controversies over his past activities, however, did not greatly affect the voters in his constituency, he said.
“They even seemed to see that my diverse experiences would help develop a balanced political perspective,” Ha said.
By Bae Hyun-jung (firstname.lastname@example.org)