SEOUL (Reuters) - By the time Pyongyang’s rubber stamp parliament meets on April 13 to anoint Kim Jong-un as the third of his line to rule the impoverished state, 53-year old Cho Myung-chul will likely have become the first North Korean to win a free election.
The rub is that Cho, once part of North Korea’s elite who defected in 1994 during the 17-year rule of Kim Jong-il, is standing in parliamentary elections in South Korea April 11 - the first defector to do so.
“When I first came to Seoul I was filled with rage and pure hatred for Kim Jong-il’s government,” Cho told Reuters in a cafe in the heart of Seoul’s bustling commercial centre.
Cho studied at and later joined the faculty of Kim Il Sung University, named after the founder of North Korea and reserved for regime loyalists.
While working as an exchange professor in China, Cho left that life and his wife and sought refuge in South Korea, where 23,000 North Koreans live, largely on the fringes of one of the world’s most prosperous countries.
After years working in research institutes, Cho was appointed to the state-run Institute for Unification Education in Seoul, the highest public office ever held by a defector.
That appointment saw him denounced as “human garbage” by North Korea’s propaganda machine and local media reported that a hit squad was being sent to kill him.
“If they do murder me they will only be turning me in to a hero,” Cho said.
Like many North Koreans, Cho found it hard to settle into the South. With their distinctive accents, many northerners are shunned by their southern brethren and find themselves working in menial jobs. Some have even grown disillusioned enough to return to the North.
“Many defectors can’t settle in; they struggle with unemployment and being treated like social outcasts,” said Cho.
Cho stands fourth on a list of 44 proportional representation candidates for the ruling conservative Saenuri party, which has taken a hard-line stance on the North, cutting off aid and insisting that Pyongyang apologize for the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in 2010 before talks on closer ties and financial assistance can restart.
North Korea denies it carried out the sinking in which the lives of 46 South Korean sailors were lost.
The eventual aim of both North and South Korea’s governments is reunification of the peninsula, which was split in 1953 after an armistice ended the bloody Korean War.
While South Korea has emerged from poverty to become the world’s 13th largest economy, living conditions in the North are worse than they were 20 years ago and a country that is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power is forced to rely on economic support from China.
Lavish celebrations for the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung, the country’s “eternal president,” will be held on April 15 and North Korea is to launch a rocket carrying a satellite to mark the occasion.
The launch, announced two weeks after a February 29 deal with Washington that would have allowed the North to receive food aid from the United States, has scuppered chances of a thaw in Asia’s most intractable conflict.
“After Kim Jong-il died, people had some hopes that Kim Jong-un could bring some kind of openness. But he is doing the same things that his father did,” said Cho.
While South Korea has prospered, Cho says that unless it learns better how to absorb North Koreans living here, it stands no chance of being able to reunite a nation of more than 70 million people.
He plans to use his position in parliament to promote awareness of the difficulties North Koreans face in the South.
“If we can’t make these 23,000 succeed here, we will not be able to do it with the 23 million living in the North.”
Editing by David Chance and Jonathan Hopfner