By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) – Thae Yong Ho, one of the highest profile North Koreans to defect in recent years, had hoped to visit New York last month to speak on a United Nations panel, meet U.S. envoys, and discuss human rights in the reclusive Asian nation.
Only a year ago, Thae testified before a congressional committee, while other defectors met U.S. President Donald Trump, who highlighted several of their stories in his state of the union speech in January.
This time, however, Thae said the Americans told him they would not provide him with the security protection he was provided in the past, prompting him to cancel the trip.
“I just wanted to talk about the human rights issues, which are being neglected in the face of North Korea’s charm offensive, and that’s all I can do,” Thae told Reuters.
Human rights have been almost completely absent from this year’s flurry of diplomatic negotiations between North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and leaders in South Korea and the United States.
As living examples of some of North Korea’s worst abuses, defectors have long been the public face of campaigns to pressure Pyongyang to change its ways.
But amid international efforts to reduce military tensions and improve ties with North Korea, many of the 32,000 North Korean refugees in South Korea say they feel like political pawns suddenly discarded.
Thae was North Korea’s deputy envoy to the United Kingdom and, after his high-profile defection in 2016, South Korea’s intelligence agency gave him a job at its affiliated think tank.
But as Seoul pushed for a thaw in ties with the North, Thae left the think tank in May, saying he did not want to be a “burden”.
Soon after, Thae criticised Kim Jong Un during a press conference at the National Assembly, prompting Pyongyang to cancel high-level talks and blast the South for allowing “human scum” to speak.
One activist involved in planning Thae’s aborted New York trip said it was a political decision.
“If Thae goes there, Kim’s image would surely get tarnished, and that will most likely come back to Trump who said he trusts Kim.”
The U.S. State Department did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment, but officials have previously said they remain committed to human rights as an issue with North Korea.
Other defectors say they have also experienced a drop in support as South Korea and the United States seek to improve ties and officially end the 1950-53 Korean War.
The South Korean government has cracked down on defector groups who use balloons to send contraband and anti-Kim leaflets into North Korea.
One veteran journalist at the Chosun Ilbo, a major South Korean newspaper, was last month denied access by the South Korean government to cover a round of negotiations with North Korea because he was a defector.
An official at the newspaper referred to an editorial saying the ban on the journalist was part of the government’s censorship and maltreatment of defectors for the sake of the inter-Korean thaw.
The Unification Ministry said the ban was “inevitable” to ensure smooth talks, and it would make efforts to create conditions for defectors to resettle better. Minister Cho Myoung-gon has said he would make the same decision if the situation recurs.
And Choi Sung-guk, a defector who now draws cartoons about the life in North Korea, said he was asked to leave a radio show at TBS, a Seoul City-owned network supportive of the Moon administration, less than five minutes after criticising Kim.
“They asked how I felt about Kim coming to the South, and I said we should not be deceived by him because I don’t think he has changed,” Choi said.
“But then my air-time was suddenly cut to one first sentence from what would have been a regular one hour otherwise.”
An official at TBS said Cho was not replaced because of his remarks but the network’s decision to air “better content”.
Under Kim, North Korea has been accused of widespread human rights abuses, including public executions, torture and prison camps where the United Nations estimate up to 120,000 people are held. Defectors risked their lives to cross the border in a journey that may entail persecution and slave labour, if caught and repatriated.
Pyongyang rejects those allegations.
“The Moon administration is even, unfortunately, cutting support for these marginalized groups and even trying to censor their voices,” said Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer at the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, who met dozens of defectors during a visit to Seoul last month.
Controversy over the fate of 12 North Korean waitresses, several of whom say they were tricked by South Korean intelligence into defecting and now want to return home, has made some in the refugee community concerned about being forced to return to North Korea.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry has said the defection was voluntary, but said later it would consider returning them if the waitresses want, in what would be an unprecedented move.
South Koreans, including defectors, must seek government approval to visit the North. Some defectors have sneaked in via China and appeared on North Korean TV to criticise the South.
Another defector, Heo Seong-il, sought asylum in the United States in August, after facing years of what he says was harassment by the South Korean government, including a three-year jail term on espionage charges he says were false.
There was no immediate comment from the National Intelligence Service.
Heo hoped for a better life after Moon was sworn in, only to realise things could get worse for defectors as the president pushed for peace with the North.
“When I was in the North, the South was my emotional support, and I didn’t know it is a country where the government… can completely ignore a citizen’s life,” Heo, 36, told Reuters from the United States.
“I would rather live like a hobo here. I don’t see a future in South Korea.”
(Editing by Josh Smith and Lincoln Feast.)