The North Koreans Who Escape Back Home
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Most border crossers are heading from North to South Korea. But a few are going the other way.
By Edward White and Kang Buseong
Just after midday on Sept. 21, Lee Dae-jun, a South Korean official on a fisheries patrol vessel, removed his footwear, took a flotation device and entered the fast-moving tidal waters between an outlying island and the North Korean coastline.
The next day, the 47-year-old was discovered by the North Korean military, questioned, shot dead, his body doused in oil and burned by troops wearing gas masks. Lee, the South Korean government has suggested, was trying to defect.
Pyongyang contests Seoul’s version of events, saying its troops acted in line with rules of engagement and COVID-19 protection measures. Lee’s family members, who have denied he was a defector, have called for a United Nations investigation.
If the South Korean claims are true, however, Lee would join a select group who have attempted the desperate journey across one of the world’s most dangerous borders. But why would anyone choose to live in a repressive communist state?
About 30 North Korean defectors have “re-defected” from South Korea since Kim Jong Un assumed power in 2011.
Details of defections to North Korea are rarely made public but some episodes have become legend. That includes the case of Charles Robert Jenkins, a disgruntled U.S. soldier, who in 1965 drank 10 cans of beer before he abandoned his post in the demilitarized zone dividing the peninsula — a mistake that led to Jenkins living under the brutal Kim regime for four decades.
Over the past 20 years, most defections have involved North Koreans fleeing south — an estimated 33,600 have done so, though about 900 are unaccounted for. Tens of thousands more live in China. But many struggle to adjust to life in South Korea and have to fend off coercive measures used by the bowibu, North Korea’s secret police, to try to lure them to return.
Lee Mi-young is a typical defector success story. A millennial who came to South Korea 10 years ago, she has adapted her accent and vernacular to sound like a local, including using the ubiquitous English loanwords that are never used in North Korea. These moves — masking her real identity — have helped smooth the path for studying, working and starting several small businesses.
Lee’s aunt, however, did not enjoy the same fortune. Despite escaping through China to South Korea, she struggled to adapt to life in Seoul and missed her daughter, whom she had left behind and who had since had a child of her own. Lee says her aunt decided to secretly travel back to North Korea, hoping to return to the life she had previously known. Instead, she lives under the close watch of the bowibu and is deployed by government propagandists to warn people of the hardship faced by those who leave the motherland.
“She was always crying,” Lee says of her aunt during her time in Seoul. But now “her life is not hers anymore.”
One in 5 defectors in South Korea has thought about returning to North Korea, according to a 2019 survey by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, a Seoul-based nongovernmental organization.
Sokeel Park, of Liberty in North Korea, a group that helps North Koreans defect and adapt to life abroad, stresses that those who actually return are in a “very small minority” compared with the many stories of remarkable success.
“There are so many young North Koreans who’ve come here, have gone to university in South Korea in the first generation of migration, started businesses, gone into all sorts of professions, and are sending money back home and helping others to defect,” Park says.
Still, he says, defectors face a number of challenges, from isolation and loneliness and the lack of a community to discrimination and prejudice, as well as feeling uneducated and unintelligent because of their differences with ordinary South Koreans.
“People tend to get into negative ruts, and frankly, depression and anxiety,” Park says.
Kim Seong-min, a defector and democracy activist in Seoul, notes that the bowibu has sharpened its tracking of defectors. The agents exert intense pressure on defectors to return, using both threats and incentives that are often delivered via family members still in North Korea. Some of those who returned to North Korea were “deluded” into expecting a better life, Kim says.
Park Sang-hak, another defector turned activist, says some North Koreans returned after encountering legal problems. He pointed to an incident in July in which a defector, according to South Korean officials, crawled beneath barbed wire and through a drain on Ganghwa Island, before swimming more than half a mile to North Korea. The man, whose arrival in a North Korean border city sparked fears of a coronavirus outbreak, was reportedly facing a sexual assault investigation.
Park, of Liberty in North Korea, says that responsibility lies with the South Korean government and civil society groups to improve the programs for resettling defectors. He believes South Koreans en masse could also do much more to be inclusive of North Korean identity.
“Some North Koreans talk about it in terms of ‘coming out’ because it is like being gay in a way — if you don’t think society is going to be welcoming then you just hide that part of your identity and talk past it if it ever comes up,” he says.
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