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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Oct. 9)

All News 09:51 October 09, 2020

Better protection for defectors
Question raised over disclosure of envoy's defection

The belated disclosure of the defection of a high-ranking North Korean diplomat to South Korea has raised questions about whether the authorities are doing their best to ensure his personal security and prevent his family in the North from suffering persecution.

Critics argue that politicians should have kept the defection of Jo Song-gil, the North's former acting ambassador to Italy, secret. His arrival in South Korea was made public Tuesday when a local broadcaster reported it. Rep. Ha Tae-keung of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP), a member of the National Assembly Intelligence Committee, confirmed it on Facebook.

On Wednesday, Rep. Jeon Hae-cheol, the chairman of the committee and a member of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), acknowledged Jo's defection. According to him, Jo defected to the South in July 2019. "He had repeatedly expressed his wish to come to South Korea," Jeon said.

Jo made headlines across the world in November 2018 when he disappeared while serving as the North's acting ambassador in Rome just before his term expired. He was widely reported to be seeking asylum in a third country. But he finally chose to begin a new life with his wife in the South.

Jo's defection must be good news for South Korea. He is seen as the highest ranking former North Korean official to seek asylum here since Hwang Jang-yop, the former secretary of the North's ruling Workers' Party, defected to the South in 1997. He is also the first ambassador-level Pyongyang official to settle in the South since Kim Jong-un took power in 2011.

However, the Moon Jae-in administration kept quiet on Jo's defection. It is still refusing to officially confirm it for several reasons. Firstly, Jo wanted to keep his defection low key to protect his daughter and other family members living in North Korea.

His teenage daughter was repatriated from Italy to the North in February 2019. Not only his daughter but also his father and father-in-law could suffer under the iron-fisted rule of the reclusive regime if news of Jo's defection to the South was made public.

Secondly, the administration did not want to jeopardize President Moon's active engagement policy with North Korea. It goes without saying that the revelation of Jo's defection would negatively affect Moon's peace initiative on the peninsula, as well as aggravating inter-Korean relations. It was appropriate for the government to remain silent on the issue.

More importantly, the authorities should do everything they can to protect North Korean defectors and help them lead a decent life here without having to worry about their personal security. In this regard, Reps. Ha and Jeon should have been more cautious about making news of Jo's defection public.

Some pundits may argue that more details about Jo's asylum-seeking should be disclosed to respect the public's right to know. But it is desirable for the government and the media to maintain a low-key position in order to better protect Jo and his family. Such a position is also required not to provoke the Kim Jong-un regime which is undergoing difficulties arising from international sanctions, COVID-19 and floods.

This episode is taking place at a time when inter-Korean relations have hit a snag. It also comes after a South Korean fisheries official was shot dead by North Korean military personnel in the West Sea last month. Some people are criticizing the lawmakers for trying to divert the public's attention from the government's failure to prevent the death of the official. But we should not go too far. The Moon administration should strive to prevent South-North relations from deteriorating further.
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