North Koreans In The South Who Want To Go Back Home

Nostalgia, illness and the pain of missing loved ones pushes some to try to 're-defect' back to North Korea. But Seoul won't allow it, and the risk of punishment upon their return is huge.

Son Jeong-hun, a North Korean who wants to back home
Son Jeong-hun, a North Korean who wants to back home
Jason Strother

SEOUL – Son Jeong-hun escaped from North Korea more than 10 years ago. Since then, he has helped other North Koreans to resettle here in the south. The 49-year-old says that many were surprised when he announced that he wants to go back home.

“No one had ever asked to re-defect to North Korea before. The government said there’s no way for me to return, and that it was illegal. I was told that, at the very least, I need an invitation from North Korea if I want to visit.”

Son says he’s ill and wants to see his family in Pyongyang again before he dies. And he’s also broke – he couldn’t pay back a loan and lost his apartment. He says he now regrets coming to South Korea.

“I’m not making this up, 80 out of 100 defectors say they’d go back to North Korea to be with their families if it weren’t for the punishment they’d receive there. They’d go even if it meant they’d only be able to eat corn porridge.”

After publicly declaring his request to re-defect, he says he’s been put on an overseas travel ban. But some other refugees have made it all the way back home. Over the past year, a handful of defectors have shown up on North Korean television. They say the South Korean government lured them with promises of money. But in the end, they say, leaving the motherland turned out badly.

Kim Jong-un’s government is working

Son says these videos make him feel confident that he won’t be punished if he ever does make it back. “I spent 36 years of my life in Pyongyang, I worked for the government, I know how things work there. I don’t expect to be welcomed back with open arms. Under Kim Jong-il, thousands of people escaped but I think now the regime will want to use me to show how things are getting better there, that Kim Jong-un’s government is working.”

Some refugee advocates here say around 100 North Koreans have quietly slipped back across the border. But, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, only 13 resettled defectors have returned to the North. Three of those have since come back to the South.

Koo Byoung-sam heads the ministry’s resettlement program. He says defectors have different reasons for returning to North Korea. “They might have been persuaded by Pyongyang to return or they might feel nostalgic and miss their families and some might have just not adjusted to life here.”

For many defectors, ‘not adjusting’ means unemployment, failed attempts at starting a business and getting into debt. According to Kim Suk-woo, a former Unification Ministry official, many go bankrupt after paying back the brokers that smuggled them to the south. And he says they pay with their government resettlement stipend.

“They have to pay 2,000 dollars to those brokers. Even though they receive around 40,000 dollars from the government, they have to pay the down payment for their apartment or some things like that and there’s not a lot of money left.”

Role models for refugees

Kim says civic groups should help defectors pay back the brokers and the government should increase its resettlement stipend. He adds that some other defectors can help too by acting as positive examples for newly arrived refugees.

27-year old Kim Eun-ju could be one of those role models. I met her in a café near Seoul’s Sogang University, where she’s in her final semester. She’s also an author — her memoir recently came out here. Kim defected to South Korea as a teenager. She says she wouldn’t call herself a success yet, but feels she’s on her way. But she says she couldn’t have done it alone.

“As refugees, we need to resolve a lot of our new challenges here on our own. But to make it in South Korea, we shouldn’t feel ashamed of asking for help. I received a lot of assistance from others and it got me where I am now. There is a bias against North Koreans here, but there are also many people who want to help.”

Kim says she’d never think about going back to North Korea under the current regime. “There might be a lot of reasons why they want to go back, but I really think they’re foolish. They think that they can live well back in the North if they take with them the money they made in South Korea. But the fact there’s no freedom there makes it a big mistake to think that way.”

As for Son Jeong-hun, the refugee who wants to go back to Pyongyang, he says he has fewer people to turn to than ever before. “Other defectors in the community are worried about speaking to me. The South Korean police are monitoring me and also contacting anyone who’s spoken to me. My friends don’t want to be investigated. My social life is pretty bad right now.”

And Son says that makes life in South Korea a lot like life in North Korea.

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The Olympic torch is lit at the Archaeological site of Olympia in Greece.

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Asham!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where Pyongyang test fires a suspected submarine-launched missile, Colin Powell is remembered, Poland-EU tensions rise, and yay (or yeesh): it's officially Ye. Meanwhile, our latest edition of Work → In Progress takes the pulse of the new professional demands in a recovering economy.

[*Oromo - Ethiopia and Kenya]


• North Korea fires missile off Japan coast: South Korea military reports that North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the waters off the coast of Japan. The rocket, thought to have been launched from a submarine, is the latest test in a series of provocations in recent weeks.

• Poland/EU tensions: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused the EU of "blackmail" and said the European Union is overstepping its powers, in a heated debate with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the rule of law. The escalation comes in the wake of a controversial ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that puts national laws over EU principles.

• Colin Powell remembered: Tributes are pouring for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after his death yesterday at age 84. Although fully vaccinated, Powell died from complications from COVID-19 as he was battling blood cancer. A trailblazing soldier, he then helped shape U.S. foreign policy, as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and served as the nation's top diplomat for George W. Bush. Powell's legacy is, by his own admission, "blotted" by his faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify the U.S. war in Iraq.

• Russia to suspend NATO diplomatic mission amid tension: Russia is suspending its diplomatic mission to NATO and closing the alliance's offices in Moscow as relations with the Western military block have plunged to a new low. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the move after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission for alleged spying. Relations between NATO and Russia have been strained since Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

• Ecuador state of emergency to battle drug crime: President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency amid Ecuador's surge in drug-related violence. He announced the mobilization of police and the military to patrol the streets, provide security, and confront drug trafficking and other crimes.

• Taliban agrees to house-to-house polio vaccine drive: The WHO and Unicef campaign will resume nationwide polio vaccinations after more than three years, as the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign and to allow women to participate as frontline health workers. Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and infectious disease

• Kanye West officially changes name: Some say yay, some say yeesh, but it's official: The-artist-formerly-known-as-Kanye-West has legally changed his name to Ye, citing "personal reasons."


The Washington Post pays tribute to Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, who died at 84 years old from complications from COVID-19.


Jashn-e Riwaaz

Indian retailer Fabindia's naming its new collection Jashn-e Riwaaz, an Urdu term meaning "celebration of tradition," has been met with severe backlash and calls for boycott from right-wing Hindu groups. They are accusing the brand of false appropriation by promoting a collection of clothes designed for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, but giving it a name in Urdu, a language spoken by many Muslims.


Work → In Progress: Where have all the workers gone?

After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback. This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.

🗓️ Hail the 4-day week Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.

🚚 Empty seats In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because of the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines. The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.

💼 Key help wanted It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all? A recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment. The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on.

➡️


I'm worried for my Afghan sisters.

— Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai Nobel Prize tells the BBC that despite the Taliban's announcement that they would soon lift the ban on girls' education in Afghanistan, she worries it "might last for years."

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more yay or yeesh about the artist currently known as Ye? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at!

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