Thae Yong-ho and Ji Seong-ho, the pair of high profile North Korean defectors-turned South Korean opposition lawmakers, have publicly apologized for their “groundless remarks” about Kim Jong-un’s health following complaints by ruling Democratic Party lawmakers.
Thae, a former deputy ambassador to Britain who fled to South Korea in 2016, and was elected as the representative of the Gangnam District of Soeul from the opposition United Future Party in April, publicly mused last month that he believed Kim “cannot stand up by himself or walk properly.”
In a statement Monday, the politician apologized for his remarks. “I am aware that one of the reasons why many of you voted for me as a lawmaker is with the expectations of an accurate analysis and projections on North Korean issues,” he said, according to Reuters. “I feel the blame and heavy responsibility,” he added. “Whatever the reasons, I apologise to everyone.”
His counterpart, Ji Seong-ho, a defector who left North Korea in the mid-2000s, and who was elected as a lawmaker from the Future Korea Party in April, similarly expressed regret for his comment that he was “99 percent sure” that Kim was dead.
“I have pondered on myself for the past few days, and felt the weight of the position that I’m in,” Ji said. “As a public figure, I will behave carefully going forward,” he promised.
The Democratic Party, the ruling parliamentary party of President Moon Jae-in, attacked the pair of MPs for their remarks, accusing them of not just misinforming the public, but threatening President Moon’s careful efforts to improve relations between the two Koreas. One lawmaker suggested that the pair be excluded from the parliament’s intelligence and defence committees, while another asked what value they bring to South Korea generally.
Separately, activists made a formal complain to the country’s prosecutor’s office, accusing the pair of spreading fake news.
Before the present scandal, the pair of men had helped to shape the South Korean and global narrative regarding North Korea and the nature of its government. Thae has been employed by the South Korean Institute for National Security Strategy, and NK Daily, the National Endowment for Democracy-funded website which helped originate the rumours of Kim’s ill health last month. Both men have traveled the world to address Western parliaments about North Korea. Ji attended the 2018 State of the Union at the invitation of President Donald Trump, who called his heroic story of escape from the country a “testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom.”
Rumours regarding Kim’s health began to swirl in mid-April, after he skipped the Day of the Sun, the major North Korean holiday celebrating the birth of his grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il-sung. In the weeks that followed, South Korean media and CNN speculated, citing unnamed sources, that Kim was either ill or dead following heart surgery. Seoul maintained that it had no information to suggest that anything was wrong with Kim, while President Trump called CNN’s reporting “incorrect.” North Korean media released images and video of Kim at the opening of a fertilizer plant on Saturday, showing him to be alive, walking upright as normal, and in apparent good humour.