The repatriation dilemma
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
A North Korean defector, who identifies herself as “Pyongyang resident Kim Ryon-hui,” has lived in South Korea for 12 years. She claims she was deceived by a middleman who had told her that she would earn a handsome wage by working in the South for just two months after she was smuggled on a boat and that she would be able to return to Pyongyang. Kim repeatedly demanded Seoul send her back to Pyongyang, where her family lives, because she has no intention to live in South Korea.
In 2016, she entered the Vietnamese Embassy in Seoul and requested asylum. As her request was rejected, she was arrested by the police. For that incident, she was indicted on charges of violating the National Security Act, which punishes the acts of infiltration and escape. Later, she was convicted of the charges, but received a suspended sentence.
Rep. Thae Yong-ho — a former North Korean diplomat and currently a lawmaker of the governing People Power Party (PPP) — contends that defectors wishing to go back to the North, just like Kim, should be sent back in return for South Korean prisoners of war and other detainees.
Another North Korean defector, only identified as Kim, was a former gymnast. He crossed the eastern border early this year to return to North Korea. But his case is extremely unfortunate. In November 2020, he jumped over the 3-meter-high barbed wire fence along the border to defect to South Korea. But this year, he returned to North Korea through the same route. According to his friends in the South, he failed to adapt to the life here and apparently decided to go back to the North.
Actually, some defectors returned to North Korea through China after failing to adjust to the life in South Korea. For North Koreans not accustomed to a competitive society, South Korea must have been a tough place to live in.
But Kim’s case is very unfortunate because a North Korean source said he had failed to accomplish the goal of living in North Korea again. It is unclear if he was executed for having defected to South Korea or if he was shot to death by North Korean soldiers while crossing the tense border due to North Korea’s draconian public health measures of shooting and killing all living organisms crossing the border from Covid-19-striken areas. But no matter what the reason was, Kim was unable to live in the North. The case shows that Rep. Thae’s proposal to send North Korean defectors back to North Korea if they wish cannot be realized easily.
Certainly, it is not a simple matter to send back such defectors to North Korea. But the act of repatriating North Koreans against their will cannot be justified for any reasons.
Asked why two North Korean fishermen were sent back to North Korea in November 2019, the Moon Jae-in administration said it made the decision because they had no “genuine intention” to defect to South Korea. The argument remains unchanged. As former National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong said, they might not have the intention to defect to South Korea at the moment when they were captured by South Korean Navy.
But clearly, the two North Koreans had no intention to return home either. Photos and a video recording of their repatriation shows it. A person’s tongue may speak insincere words to avoid a crisis, but in a desperate moment, a person’s body cannot lie. When their blindfolds were removed, they struggled to stay away from the border. It was an expression of their survival instinct, and that was genuine.
The public was able to see the video clip 20 months after the repatriation. Back then, the Moon administration officials must have already known that they did not want to be sent back to North Korea. The fact that their eyes were blindfolded and their hands were tied is the proof. And yet, they lie to the public that they had no choice but to send them back because there was no “genuineness” in their wish to defect. That is not possible unless they were confident that they could deceive people. If the Moon administration had told citizens that it had to ignore their wish to defect to protect South Korean people because the two fishermen were criminals, it would at least avoid criticism that it deceived the people.
Media reported that South Korean intelligence authorities had learned that the two North Koreans were executed within a few days of their repatriation. I do not want to believe it. But it is highly likely given the North’s track record of killing and burning a South Korean fisheries official who had drifted in the Yellow Sea in September 2020.
Even a heinous criminal has the right for a trial and assistance from an attorney. That is what differentiates a country with the rule of law from those without it and a civilized country from savage ones. The related officials of the Moon administration should be additionally accused of having denied the rule of law of South Korea.