Why some North Korean defectors return to one of many world’s most repressive regimes


A couple of month because the man crossed the demilitarized zone from South to North Korea, a lot of his life in each nations stays a thriller — as do his causes for returning to the remoted nation dominated by Kim Jong Un.

South Korean media reported that the defector — who hasn’t been formally named, though fellow defectors say he was referred to as Kim Woo-jeong in South Korea — was a former gymnast who largely stored to himself. In line with South Korean police, he was a development employee in his 30s who earned cash by doing handbook labor.

The person’s case is uncommon — whereas greater than 10,000 North Korean defectors have arrived in South Korea previously decade, simply 30 have returned dwelling, the place they face the prospect of being put into pressured labor camps, in keeping with official South Korean knowledge.

However defectors and advocates say even when the person’s rationale for leaving South Korea is unclear, the truth that some North Korean defectors are prepared to return to one of many world’s most politically remoted nations solely highlights how difficult life might be within the South for North Koreans.

Why folks defect

Because the Korean War ended with an armistice in 1953, North and South Korea have been separated by an virtually impenetrable border stopping anybody from crossing to the opposite aspect.

Over subsequent a long time, South Korea has modernized, changing into one of many world’s richest and most technologically developed nations. In the meantime, North Korea has grow to be more and more remoted, with residents topic to widespread poverty and restricted primary freedoms.

So it is not laborious to see why folks might wish to escape.

Since 1998, greater than 33,000 folks have defected from North Korea to South Korea, in keeping with South Korea’s Unification Ministry. Nonetheless, numbers have dwindled lately after Kim imposed even more durable border controls to forestall Covid inflows.

On very uncommon events, defectors — like the previous gymnast — handle to flee by way of the closely guarded demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. The overwhelming majority, like defector Kang Chun-hyuk, flee over North Korea’s prolonged border with China.

Kang’s household made the journey in 1998 when he was 12 years outdated, earlier than lastly making it to South Korea a number of years later.

People gather before the statues of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in 2021 to mark the 10th anniversary of Kim Jong Il's death.

In North Korea, Kang remembers barely having sufficient meals to outlive.

Typically, his household would make a single portion of dry noodles right into a meal that may feed him and his mother and father for per week.

“It wasn’t value going to highschool, so me and my classmates stole meals like corn or potatoes,” he stated.

In line with a survey of three,000 folks launched this yr by the North Korean Refugees Basis, meals shortages are one of the crucial widespread motivations for defection, with almost 22% saying that was why they’d defected. The commonest purpose given — at 23% — was that individuals did not like being managed or monitored by the North Korean regime.

As soon as they arrive in South Korea, there are measures in place to assist them. Defectors endure a obligatory, 12-week training session to assist them regulate to life of their new dwelling. They’re given monetary assist and lodging, and entry to well being care and employment companies.

Besides, life for defectors is commonly a battle.

Discovering work and becoming in

Earlier than Kang Na-ra — no relation to Kang Chun-hyuk — defected in 2014 as a youngster, she thought her life in South Korea would mirror the Ok-dramas she watched in secret within the metropolis of Chongjin.

However South Korea was a far cry from the romantic world she’d seen on display.

Kang Na-ra’s mom defected earlier than her — she doesn’t wish to say why — however their life collectively in South Korea was not what she’d hoped.

The North Korean border county of Kaepoong from a South Korean observatory at the southern boundary of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas.

Her mom labored lengthy hours and was typically away from dwelling dancing in a North Korean defectors performing group to make ends meet. Though Kang Na-ra spoke the identical language, she was lonely and had few associates in South Korea.

One other defector, who requested to not be named or additional recognized for concern of repercussions for his household remaining in North Korea, stated he additionally struggled with tradition shock when he defected a number of years in the past — even vivid and colourful indicators and the abundance of English phrases utilized in language in South Korea made him really feel uncomfortable.

“You do not see issues like that in North Korea,” stated the defector. “I did not like many issues in South Korea at first.”

He additionally stated many defectors discovered it tough to get a job.

Statistics for 2020 launched final yr by South Korea’s Unification Ministry discovered defectors had a better unemployment price than the final inhabitants, with 9.4% of defectors unemployed, in contrast with 4% of the final inhabitants in December 2020.

“Getting a superb job is necessary, however even South Koreans who’re raised and educated right here discover it tough to get an honest job,” he stated. “You may think about how laborious it may be for North Korean defectors.”

Kang Chun-hyuk’s household was given a flat by the federal government after they made it to South Korea in 2001 after three years in China. However his thick North Korean accent made it laborious for him to slot in at college and he dropped out. He labored in handbook labor till he was 25 years outdated, not sure if he would be capable of ever do the rest.

For others, the battle to regulate and discover work can have lethal penalties. In 2019, North Korean defector Han Sang-ok was discovered useless in her residence together with her 6-year-old son after she didn’t pay her payments for months.

A water meter inspector seen a foul scent coming from the residence and referred to as the police, who discovered two closely decomposed our bodies and an empty fridge, main the police officer to notice hunger because the suspected explanation for dying.

Separation pains

However not all defectors have desires of a vivid life in South Korea.

Kim Ryon-hui is a uncommon case of a defector who arrived virtually by chance.

The 54-year-old, who lived a comparatively upscale life in North Korea, went to China in 2011 to go to family members and search medical look after liver illness. However when she arrived, she discovered Chinese language medical doctors needed cost upfront.

Kim Ryon-hui desperately wants to get back to North Korea.

Kim stated a dealer instructed her Chinese language folks typically went to South Korea to earn cash. So, she signed up for a journey to South Korea and left her North Korean passport with the dealer group — not realizing that meant she would by no means be capable of return dwelling.

Kim feels hostility from South Koreans, particularly when North Korea’s chief fires missiles. She instructed CNN she struggled to adapt to a capitalist society ruled by market pressures and to know what she sees as a dog-eat-dog world.

“It is like we’re oil and South Korea is water, so we will not combine,” she stated.

That is a typical sentiment for defectors. In line with the North Korean Refugees Basis survey, whereas most individuals are comfortable in South Korea as a result of they will stay a free life and earn relative to how a lot they work, many are sad with the extent of intense competitors.

In North Korea a packet of coffee costs $100, and that's a problem for Kim Jong Un

However the hardest half for Kim is the separation from her household. South Korean regulation prevents any communication with folks in North Korea and South Koreans can’t journey there. Until Kim sneaks again into North Korea, or the 2 Koreas attain a peace settlement, she has little likelihood of seeing her household once more.

Kim final noticed her daughter when she was 17 — now her daughter is 28. Kim is just capable of talk together with her household by way of journalists who take letters and items for her to North Korea, however that hasn’t been attainable since North Korea closed its borders because of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

“It is scary to be alone,” she stated. “After I see lights on in different flats within the night, I think about households having dinner collectively. That is the saddest and loneliest feeling.”

Why defectors return

Regardless of the difficulties of being in South Korea, the overwhelming majority keep put. For many, that is as a result of the advantages of staying in South Korea are far higher than the dangers they face in the event that they return.

Web optimization Jae-pyeong, the director of the Affiliation of the North Korean Defectors, defected in 2001. Within the 20 years he is lived in South Korea, he is solely recognized one defector personally who returned to North Korea.

She was a physician with a household again in North Korea who did not understand her brother was bringing her to South Korea, he stated.

“She did not have a purpose to defect and she or he could not get used to life in South Korea,” Web optimization stated.

Anti-North Korea activists and refugees from North Korea attend a protest against a summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, in Seoul on February 26, 2019.

He questioned how most of the 30 defectors who returned to North Korea had left of their very own free will. He stated some might have been blackmailed or kidnapped close to the border between China and North Korea.

Others might need had main monetary difficulties that left them with few different selections.

Lee Na-kyung, a defector activist for single mother and father and folks with disabilities from the North, stated by the point many defectors arrive in South Korea they have already got main money owed to brokers who helped them cross the border.

Some defectors pay their authorities settlement cash to the brokers, after which sink additional into debt as they battle to seek out work, in keeping with Lee, who defected from North Korea in 2005 after her husband was framed for against the law she says he did not commit.

For some, the hardship of life in South Korea would not meet their expectations. She is aware of of 1 man who was a high-ranking army officer in North Korea who may solely discover work in a junkyard in South Korea. “He stated that he would quite die at dwelling as a substitute of dying as a junkman,” she stated.

What subsequent?

A month after the gymnast Kim crossed again into North Korea, it is unclear whether or not he’s nonetheless alive.

Though the South Korean army noticed him on surveillance footage crossing the barbed wires into the demilitarized zone, they didn’t cease him, the South Korean army’s Joint Chiefs of Employees chairman Gained In-choul stated in a briefing in January.

He was seen 4 occasions on safety digicam on the south aspect of the border, and as soon as after he crossed the Navy Demarcation Line.

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At one level, troopers mistook him for a defector coming from the North. At one other level, they went to seek out him. Later, they discovered no hint of him besides a feather caught on a wire that they suspected had come from his puffer jacket.

There have been “no uncommon actions” of the North Korean army over the incident, South Korea’s Protection Ministry spokesman Boo Seung-chan stated final month at one other briefing.

And whereas North Korean state media has crowed about previous defectors returning dwelling, there was no point out of final month’s defector in state information publications.

For these in South Korea, it is a reminder that the nation’s insurance policies to assist defectors may nonetheless be improved. Final week, the South Korean authorities introduced it was launching a brand new staff to enhance the protection of defectors, noting that regardless of its present efforts, some defectors had been nonetheless “experiencing difficulties settling into our society.”

However defector advocates had been doubtful about how efficient these new steps can be, mentioning that assist measures are in place — they only do not work.

Kang Na-ra on her YouTube channel.

Even defectors who seem to have efficiently made their transition generally battle with the pull again to North Korea.

Two years after she defected, Kang Na-ra instructed her mom she needed to return. However she did not wish to danger her life after going by way of a lot to get to South Korea.

Now Kang, 25, is a tv persona and YouTuber with greater than 300,000 subscribers who watch her clips about life in North Korea. Her earnings is unstable, however not less than she’s having fun with life.

“Nonetheless at present, I’m wondering if I made the correct resolution,” she stated. “Life right here is hard.”

Saeeun Park and Seoyeon Youn contributed to this story from Seoul, South Korea.

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