North Korean defector impressed by Seoul political protests

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A high-profile North Korean defector told South Korean lawmakers on Friday that the massive protests that led to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye still feel strange to him but he sees the demonstrations as the country's strength.

Thae Yong Ho, the former North Korean deputy ambassador to London, said in a closed-door briefing to lawmakers that he was impressed with the South's democracy because its government continued to function despite the protests, according to the office of Lee Cheol Woo, one of the legislators who attended the event.

Thae also saw as remarkable that powerful individuals linked to the scandal that brought down Park were grilled by lawmakers on live TV, Lee's office said. The briefing was also attended by Lee Byoung Ho, the director of South Korea's spy agency, the lawmaker's office said.

South Korea's opposition-controlled parliament on Dec. 9 voted to impeach Park over the corruption scandal that saw millions of people protest in past weeks. The impeachment suspended Park's powers and pushed the prime minister into the role as government caretaker until the country's Constitutional Court decides whether she should permanently step down or be reinstated.

South Korean prosecutors have accused Park of colluding with a longtime confidante to extort money and favor from companies and allow the friend to manipulate government affairs.

Lee, the spy director, told lawmakers that North Korea's state media haven't been broadcasting video footage of South Koreans holding candlelight vigils against Park since her impeachment, because of concerns about protests images being spread among North Koreans, according to the lawmaker's office.

North Korean state TV did report on the South Korean protests on Dec. 7, but blurred the images of high-rise buildings and statutes on the boulevards in downtown Seoul where the demonstrations were held.

Lee also told lawmakers that North Korea appeared ready to conduct another nuclear test at any time, citing activity at the country's nuclear test site. He said that the North conducted a land-based ejection test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile earlier this month, according to the lawmaker's office.

North Korea this year carried out its fourth and fifth nuclear tests and also a slew of rocket launches as it continues to expand its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles program. North Korean efforts to develop submarine-launched missiles are also a concern for rivals because they would give the country a weapon that is harder to detect before launch.

In announcing his defection in August, the South Korean government said Thae came to the South with his family because of his disgust with the North's government under leader Kim Jong Un and worries about the future of his children.

Thae is the most senior North Korean diplomat to defect to South Korea. In 1997, the North Korean ambassador to Egypt fled but resettled in the United States.

North Korea didn't dispute Thae's defection, but said that he ran away to avoid punishment for sexual and financial crimes.

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