Defector who made risky return to North isn't the first

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Defector who made risky return to North isn't the first

The drain in Ganghwa County, Incheon, through which a 24-year-old North Korean defector is believed to have gone through to escape to the North. [YONHAP]

The drain in Ganghwa County, Incheon, through which a 24-year-old North Korean defector is believed to have gone through to escape to the North. [YONHAP]

 
A 24-year-old defector’s recent escape to North Korea through a daring border crossing shed new light on the disillusionment many defectors face in South Korea, conditions that may have prompted several dozen boomerangs to the North over the last decade.
 
While South Korea welcomes and helps any North Korean who chooses to defect with resettlement, returning to the North is considered a criminal act that can be charged under the South’s National Security Act.
 
Yet such a law — as well as the potential risk of punishment returnees may face back in the North — hasn’t prevented at least 29 of them from braving dangerous journeys back across the border.
 
That number comes from statistics provided by the Ministry of Unification, South Korea’s top inter-Korean body, which said an additional 12 defectors have been punished under the Act since 2015 for attempting to return to North Korea following their resettlement.  
 
But some defectors in the South have cast doubt on official claims from Seoul, saying the actual number may be far higher.
 
“The Unification Ministry says there have only been 11 people [who returned to the North] within the last five years, but that number only includes people who the North have put up in official press conferences,” Ahn Chan-il, a defector and head of the World Institute for North Korea Studies, a private research organization, told CBS radio in South Korea.  
 
“If you include those who have not been made public, there are likely around a hundred, while there are around 300 more defectors who have disappeared to China or another third country, according to the defector community.”
 
As to why so many defectors allegedly return to the North, after risking their lives escaping the brutal regime in the first place, experts and leaders of defector communities presented a variety of possibilities.
 
One of the most common reasons, they said, was the fear that defectors fostered about their families that remained in the North, who are often subjected to monitoring and punishment by the authorities.  
 
Kim Tae-hee, head of the Coalition for the North Korean Refugees, a civic group, noted the case of Lim Ji-hyun, a woman who became a popular television personality in South Korea after her defection in 2014. South Koreans were shocked in 2017, when Lim suddenly appeared on a North Korean propaganda video under a different name, proclaiming that she had voluntarily returned across the border to the North after being disappointed with the “fantasy” of prosperity in the South.  
 
According to Kim, Lim was allegedly abducted by authorities in China, near the Tumen River, after attempting to contact her family there.
 
Lim may be the most famous case of a re-defection, but Kim Seok-hyang, professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University, said many such defectors are compelled to return after the authorities threaten their families with incarceration in prison camps.  
 
Professor Kim also noted that many defectors are greatly disappointed with the quality of their lives in South Korea, where they expected to find prosperity.  
 
“In particular, they may feel that regulations and the legal system [in the South] compared to the North is more constraining,” Kim said. “The social system is completely different, so many find it hard to adjust.”
 
Some experts said the North Korean regime has recently begun turning a blind eye in terms of punishment for many ordinary defectors, or at times actively promoting their return.
 
“Under Kim Jong-un, the [regime] is showing signs of conciliation to defectors,” Ahn said, noting that state media used the term “return home” to describe the 24-year-old’s return to the North this month.  
 
To prevent defectors from returning to the North, experts said the South Korean government should take a more active role in helping defectors establish roots in the South.
 
After reeducating the newly defected, the Unification Ministry provides resettled North Koreans with housing and living subsidies, as well as support for their education and employment. But many argue such provisions are insufficient for thoroughly integrating defectors into South Korean society.  
 
BY YI WOO-LIM, SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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