Defector promotes Korea unification message

Cho Myung-Chul fled North Korea in 1994 to show the world its regime was headed in wrong direction.

Seoul: Leaving behind his family and a top job, Cho Myung-Chul fled North Korea in 1994 to show the world its regime was headed in the wrong direction.

Now, he says, that regime may be on its last legs. And in his new job, he aims to prepare South Koreans to think seriously about unification.

Cho, 59, was appointed in June as director of the Education Centre for Unification, becoming the first North Korean defector to take over a senior government post in the South.

He sees his appointment as a victory for some 21,700 Northerners who fled to the South since the 1950-53 war, the vast majority in recent years.

"To me, success is to show to (the North`s leader) Kim Jong-Il that I can achieve so much even if I don`t live under his regime...and that everyone who fled his rule is doing much better," Cho said in an interview.

Unlike many escaping hunger or poverty, Cho had little material reason to leave his homeland.

His father was construction minister and his mother a professor. As the child of top officials, he attended middle and high school with Kim Jong-Il`s siblings.

Cho secured a post teaching economics at the North`s top academic institution, Kim Il-Sung University, but was depressed and dispirited by the ideological education.

"When I was a professor in North Korea, I was fed up with the political, ideological training I had to receive and to give...things that professors at other countries would never have to do," he said.

Cho found it excruciating to be denied the freedom to lecture, write and study as he pleased.

During a spell as an exchange professor in China, he decided to break with his old life and came to South Korea via a third country.

"When I first came here, the fact that I was a professor at Kim Il-Sung University and am the son of a top official was a hard blow to the regime -- and that`s what I wanted," he said.

Life in the South was tough at first.

Cho dulled his longing for family, friends and colleagues in the North by working day and night as well as weekends.

"I was fortunate to have so much work to do. But my heart still aches when I hear people deprived of freedom dying in the North, or defectors having a hard time adapting here," he said.

Cho previously worked at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, a state-run think-tank.

In his new job, he will take over existing unification education programmes which start at elementary school level, focusing them also on the reality of North Korea and on national security.

"We will also expand the usage of social networking approach and keep pace with the public," said Cho.

The former defector said Kim`s regime is "extremely unstable" due partly to a worsening economy.

"Internationally, the country is completely isolated because they develop nuclear weapons, missiles, they kidnap people and terrorise..."

"In this situation, does the North Korean regime have the leadership to improve the lives of the people and to develop the economy? They have nothing and where can such leadership come from?" Cho said.

"We can`t say for a fact when unification will come. But I can say that, compared to before, the possibility of unification is definitely approaching."

Seoul`s conservative government shares his view, laying unusual stress on the need to prepare for unification.

President Lee Myung-Bak last year proposed a special tax to help meet the cost, estimated by a parliamentary committee at about 1.3 trillion dollars.

The North`s estimated per capita GDP is around one-fifteenth or less that of the South.

Lee last week said unification is closer than before and "won`t take such a long time" but he did not elaborate on the reasons for his belief.

The prospect alarms some South Koreans, a reaction which Cho blamed on weak education in the subject.

He said the benefits would far outweigh the cost, considering the freedom and work incentives which North Koreans would enjoy, international aid and a gradual approach that spreads the cost.

"Education should persuade the public of such benefits and change the fear into hope."

Bureau Report

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