One defector’s desperate wish: to return home
The exception is Kim Ryon-hui, a Pyongyang dressmaker-turned-defector. She loves current leader Kim Jong-un almost as much as she did his late father, Kim Jong-il. The telephone number she uses in South Korea contains the birth date of the grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.
“There can be no objection to our ways in the North,” she says, “because everyone knows how caring they [the Kim family] are of the people.”
Kim is a singularity: a defector who wishes she never came. Kim calls her decision to defect a tragic personal error. She considers herself a citizen of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name for North Korea, not the Republic of Korea. She misses her 50-year-old husband, 21-year-old daughter and aging parents.
“My only wish is to pour a cup of Korean wine for my parents in Pyongyang,” says the 46-year-old defector in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at a cafe in Seoul, as tears roll down her face.
In other words, Kim wants to go home. She has appealed to the South Korean government to send her back to the North.
But Kim has learned the hard way that a defection from the last part of earth living in the Cold War is hazardous, lonely - and one-way.
“I was too naive,” she says. “I thought of South Korea as a brother to North Korea and thought South Korea would return me home if I told them I made a mistake coming here.”
Coverage of Kim’s case by the local daily Hankyoreh in July, followed by profiles in The New York Times and CNN, has made her a highly unlikely figure: a woman waging a campaign to flee free and democratic South Korea for one of the world’s worst dictatorships. She even portrays herself as a suffering embodiment of her divided homeland.
“Before, I was consumed by the pain of separation from my family,” Kim says. “But now, I have opened my eyes to the pain of all the people separated on the Korean Peninsula, which is symbolized in my case and in my pain."
Kim’s journey to South Korea began four years ago when she left her home in Pyongyang to seek advanced medical treatment for a liver illness.
She discovered the treatment would cost much more than she had anticipated. A broker specializing in helping defectors reach South Korea sold her a line of goods, she says. He told Kim that if she defected, she could make a lot of money in just six months in the South. Then she could return to China or North Korea, he claimed.
Kim agreed to join a group of defectors making their way to South Korea. Along the way, she realized she had made a mistake and tried to turn back. But the broker had seized her passport. Her leaving could endanger the whole group, the broker said. She had no way out but to continue on to Seoul.
“I thought the South Korean authorities would fly me out of the country once I told them I wished to go back to North Korea,” she says.
That didn’t happen.
When defectors from the North reach South Korea, often from a third country like Mongolia or Thailand, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) screens each one’s background to ensure they are not spies disguised as defectors.
“From the beginning, I told the agents I was tricked into coming here and asked for repatriation,” Kim says. “But they refused. They asked me how they could send me back knowing that I could be executed for defecting. I told them I was willing to be buried next to my parents if that was the only way I could be home.”
Kim’s four years in the South have clearly been unhappy. She fell into depression over the thought that she’d never again see her husband, a doctor, or her 21-year-old daughter. She settled in Gyeongsan, North Gyeongsang, working at a textile company, using her experience as a dressmaker in Pyongyang.
Kim decided to force the South Korean authorities’ hand. She figured that if the South considered her a spy, they would send her back to the North. She might have to spend some time in jail before being deported, possibly a couple of years.
She deliberately collected personal information on 17 fellow defectors in the South.
“I called the police and showed detectives the personal information of 17 defectors saved on my phone and said I was willing to hand myself in,” Kim says.
She was arrested and tried. During the trial, she testified falsely that she was ordered by Pyongyang to collect the information, save it on a flash drive and give it to a North Korean agent during a football match in Seoul in July 2013.
“I falsified my confession hoping that I would be subject to deportation,” Kim says.
She was convicted of violating the National Security Law and sentenced to two years in prison. An appeals court suspended her sentence for three years. Kim was released after spending four months in prison - no closer to her goal of going home.
Since the first media report of Kim’s turbulent life five months ago, she has been helped by civic and religious groups. North Korea has called for Kim’s repatriation, saying she was a victim of tricks by the South’s spy agency. It went so far as to say prohibiting her return was a crime against humanity.
Kim now lives in Seoul in a shared house called the House of Greet with two former political prisoners, now in their 80s, who infiltrated the south as North Korean spies and spent decades in prison for their refusal to take South Korean citizenship. They finally did in 1988 and were released.
“They adore me as if I were their daughter, from whom they had been separated for over 50 years,” Kim says of her housemates.
In November, Singaporean photographer Aram Pan, who runs the site www.dprk360.com, posted a seven-minute video of Kim’s daughter, Ri Ryon-geum, in Pyongyang watching footage of her mother on a mobile phone. In the video, Ri wails and delivers a suspiciously political message to her mother.
“The pain of my mother is the pain of my country,” says the 21-year-old Ri, who describes her mother’s quest to return home a “fight” against the South Korean government.
“There were times when I felt like I had no choice but to give up,” Ri says in the video. “I have always wanted to become a resilient daughter of yours when I see your fight against the bastards’ scheme [to keep you there] for our family and the country.”
Kim herself is still deeply patriotic about the North despite four years of exposure to media reports on alleged atrocities by the North Korean regime.
When asked whether she retains her faith in the Communist regime, Kim answers without hesitation that “North Korea is a country for the people, and it prioritizes the well-being of its people before anything else. Here in the South, people elect a president through ballots. In the North, people wholeheartedly dignify [the Kim family] as national leaders because of their firm, unchangeable faith in them.”
While she acknowledges that she and her family had a rough time during the famines of the 1990s, she blames them on “imperialist U.S. policies to strangle the North.” She defends Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons by likening Pyongyang to a “hedgehog left out in a jungle full of tigers.”
On accusations of widespread human rights violations in the North, Kim downplays them. She points to inaccuracies found in confessions of North Koran defectors, such as a biography of Shin Dong-hyuk, a survivor of a concentration camp.
Kim’s saga has been followed by the 28,000-member defector community group in Korea. They don’t have a lot of sympathy for her and do have a lot of questions about the story she tells.
“The majority of North Korean defectors fled the North with sons and daughters left behind,” says Huh Shin-sook, 54, who was an obstetrician in the North before defecting to the South in 2011 with her teenage daughter. “I would say 90 percent of defectors here have families trapped in the North. And yet, they decided to flee the country, knowing the heartbreaking pain of separation that would accompany them. They are living in the South bearing that pain.
“I think Kim is demanding her return now because she has failed to adapt to the way of life here,” she continues, “as evidenced by her violation of national security law.”
The South Korean government is not budging, maintaining the position that Kim is now a South Korean citizen who is beholden to the law.
“The position of the government has not changed [since the July news report],” says Jeong Joon-hee, a spokesman for the Ministry of Unification.
Under the Act on the Protection and Resettlement and Support of North Korean Defectors enacted in 1997, the South Korean government is mandated to provide North Korean defectors with a package of economic aid for up to five years to help them adapt to the capitalist South. The current law regarding defectors does not have any clause to handle North Korean defectors who change their minds and ask to go home.
In the absence of such legislation, North Korean defectors who have settled in the South must obey the 67-year-old national security law, which prohibits South Korean nationals from contacting North Koreans or entering the Communist country without government permission. Anyone who sneaks into the North can face up to 10 years in prison.
The law is controversial, and critics accuse it of violating basic human rights such as the freedom of expression. They warn that authorities can exploit it to suppress political dissent, as was the case during authoritarian governments.
But Kim is a South Korean citizen, and the law applies to her. Because of her request to go home, Kim claims, she has never been issued a passport.
In fact, more than a dozen North Korean defectors have had changes of heart and managed to return to the North. They are used as propaganda victories by Pyongyang, and none of their stories can be confirmed in any kind of detail.
“Based on press reports produced by the North, about 15 to 16 defectors are estimated to have crossed the border again into the North,” says a government official on the condition of anonymity.
Among those boomerang defectors is Ko Kyong-hui, who said she was tricked by South Korean authorities to come to the South in 2011. She made it back to the North on Nov. 9, 2012. During a January 2013 press conference in Pyongyang, she claimed she had “lived in fear” in the South and could not get a job.
But her brother, Ko Kyong-ho, who defected in 2013 with one of her children, said in a press conference in September 2014 that she returned because one of the two children who were left behind begged her to. She had been given assurances that she would be treated well before she returned - but ended up in a political prisoner camp, according to the brother.
Radio Free Asia reported in January 2013 that Ko was arrested by North Korean security officials when she tried to get her remaining two children and husband out of North Korea, citing unnamed sources.
The National Intelligence service flatly denies Kim’s allegations that she was coerced to pledge allegiance to South Korea. An NIS official tells the Korea JoongAng Daily that Kim “made a choice to defect to the South on her own will” and took government subsidies to assist with her settlement in the South.
Kim is still holding on to hope that she will be allowed to go home.
“A Unification Ministry official told me in the summer that the government would provide me with a handful of subsidies if I decide to live here in the South,” she says. “I asked him, ‘Would you abandon your family if you are offered tons of gold?’ He couldn’t answer my question.”
In a brief text exchange with her daughter in October, which was arranged by Shin Eun-mi, a Korean-American who frequently visits Pyongyang and was deported from Seoul last year for pro-North activities, Kim was resolute in her determination to return to North Korea.
“Ryon-geum! Your mother is not ashamed,” she texted. “Please keep faith that I am a mother not full of faults but full of integrity and pride. Please look after your grandfather and grandmother.
“I will make it to the 70th birthday party for my mother,” Kim added.
Her mother’s 70th birthday fell on Dec. 20.
BY KANG JIN-KYU [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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