SEOUL -- Days before Moon Jae-in was elected president of South Korea on May 9, about 300 people gathered at the national legislature to endorse the former human rights lawyer and advocate of dialogue and engagement with reclusive North Korea. Surprisingly, the group comprised many North Korean defectors, a demographic known in the South for its conservative politics and strong support for sanctions and isolation of Pyongyang.
The pro-Moon event caused a "great sensation" within conservative political circles, reported one South Korean media outlet, not least because of the presence of several high-profile defectors known for their hawkish views, including Ahn Chan-il.
Ahn, a former solider who defected in 1979, told the Nikkei Asian Review that attitudes among some 70 defector groups in the South began shifting after Moon narrowly lost the 2012 presidential race to former President Park Geun-hye. Park was removed from office in March amid a massive corruption scandal.
"Five years ago, 30% supported Moon Jae-in and 70% supported Park Geun-hye, but the spectrum has changed and now it is more like 70% liberal and 30% conservative. A minority oppose Moon but the majority supports him."
Compared with Park, Moon has adopted a dovish stance on the North, pledging to revive some version of the "sunshine" policy of engagement pursued by late liberal presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. While seeing sanctions as one tool to rein in Pyongyang, Moon, who served Roh as chief of staff, has vowed to restart a jointly run industrial park in the North and tours to a scenic North Korean mountain.
Moon has also left the door open to a future summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who on Sunday oversaw the country's second ballistic missile test in the space of just a week. Seoul's foreign ministry blasted the latest launch as a "reckless and irresponsible" action that threw cold water on hopes for peace.
A third way?
"We had hardline policy and the 'sunshine' policy for 10 years, and neither were a success," said Ahn, who endorsed Park in 2012 but now advises the new liberal administration. "I think the Moon Jae-in government has to use a mix of both and go a third way. That will lead to a superior North Korea policy."
Kang Myung-do, another prominent defector and Moon supporter associated with hardline views in the past, said the political right had been discredited by the Park scandal, rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the fact that Pyongyang carried out most of its nuclear tests during a decade of conservative rule.
"I thought the only candidate who could escape this crisis and save the country was Moon Jae-in," said Kang, the son-in-law of a former North Korean premier, who came to the South in 1994. "If you look back at the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moon-hyun administrations, there were no North Korean provocations and there was just a single nuclear test. During the conservative governments, there were four more. Because we neglected North Korea, they were given the pretext to carry out nuclear tests."
In South Korea and beyond, defectors have often argued for hardline policies to squeeze the Kim family regime. Thae Yong-ho, who became the highest-ranking defector in decades after absconding from the North Korean embassy in London last year, is one of many high-profile regime critics to have expressed skepticism about any cooperation that could prop up an oppressive system.
As well as resenting harsh treatment in their repressive homeland, many defectors retain bitter memories of the "sunshine" years during which liberal governments shied away from highlighting human rights abuses in the North for fear of scuppering inter-Korean reconciliation. The late Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking defector to date and the architect of North Korea's state ideology known as juche, complained of being gagged by the Kim and Roh administrations to avoid upsetting the northern regime.
Largely due to his association with his former boss, President Roh, Moon has drawn strident criticism from those defectors who believe he will kowtow to the North. Illustrating the divisions within the community, one non-governmental organization claimed before the election that 3,000 defectors had vowed to leave the South if Moon became president.
Defectors are not so much conservative, as opposed to a pro-North Korean policy, and opposed to leftism, said Hyun S. Song, the North American director of defector-run group No Chain for North Korea. "And in Moon they see the epitome of the pro-North Korean, leftist ideology," he noted.
"From the defectors that I know and have met, and also know via social media, most of the older generation defectors, from early 40s upward, opposed the impeachment of President Park, and also opposed Moon as president," Song added, noting that younger defectors tended to be less ideological.
While limited, polling suggests a prevalence of conservative opinion across the defector community at large, which numbers about 30,000 people living in the South. In a survey of 299 North Korean refugees carried out last year by the Korea Institute for National Unification, 78% of those who expressed support for a political party favored the center-right Saenuri Party, Park's old grouping.
Moon's plans for rapprochement are further complicated by Washington, the South's main security ally, which has spearheaded increasingly aggressive sanctions against Pyongyang in an effort to strangle its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
By following through on pledges to resume aid and joint economic projects with the North, the South Korean leader, who will meet President Donald Trump for the first time next month, could find himself accused of undercutting U.S. efforts to punish the regime.
Nevertheless, talk of war in Pyongyang and, more unusually, Washington, has convinced at least some defectors that South Korea has no choice but to reach out to its northern neighbor. Within moments of taking office on May 10, Moon did just that, declaring in his inaugural speech: "If the conditions shape up, I will go to Pyongyang."
"The families of people who came from North Korea are still all in North Korea," said Kang. "The Park Geun-hye government had serious conflict with North Korea and if that led to war, defectors would be drawing their guns against their families in the North. No defector wants a situation like that, so there cannot be war between North and South."
Lee Su-min contributed to this report.