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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At the Mango Festival held in Aswan, Egypt

Nada Arafat

ISMAILIA – Every year during the month of July, crowds gather in the mango farms of Ismailia, in northeastern Egypt, to pick the delectable summer fruit during its relatively short harvest season. But this year, as a result of erratic weather patterns throughout March and April, the usual bountiful mango harvest was severely affected with farmers witnessing a precipitous drop in yield. Some 300,000 farms saw an 80% decrease in productivity, leading to a supply shortage in the market and a corresponding 40% increase in the price of mangoes.

The effects of these climate fluctuations could have been mitigated by farmers, yet according to experts who spoke to Mada Masr, the agriculture minister failed to play a role in raising awareness among farmers and in providing agricultural guidance services.

Heatwaves kill crops

Mangoes are highly sensitive to changes in temperature. For germination to occur, the ideal temperature should be between 10 °C at night and 28 °C during the day, according to agricultural consultants. In Egypt, this weather pattern usually occurs in February. Mango trees then flower and the flowers turn into fruits that take 40 days to grow and be ready for harvest, according to Karam Suleiman, an agricultural engineer.

This year, however, according to mango farmers in Ismailia who spoke to Mada Masr, the beginning of the winter farming season experienced a sudden heatwave followed by another heatwave at the end of March. In both March and April, the temperature dipped to as low as 5 °C at night and as high as 25 °C during the day. Due to these erratic weather fluctuations, the mango flowers that develop into fruit fell before they could mature.

The typical average mango yield from one feddan (approx 1.03 acres or 0.40 hectares) ranges between 6 to 8 tons. This year however, the yield per feddan averaged between just 1 to 2 tons, according to several sources.

Frozen mango suppliers multiply purchases

A farm owner in Al-Tal al-Kebir on the Ismailia Desert Road, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, said that his farm produced approximately 35 tons of mangoes last year, whereas this year his yield did not exceed 4 tons. He added that many farmers in the surrounding area, which is famous for mango cultivation, experienced the same steep declines in yield.

The limited mango yield and the subsequent hike in prices has also prompted frozen mango suppliers to multiply their purchases from farms in order to capitalize and sell them next year at an even higher price, according to Ali Saqr, an agricultural engineer in a fruit export company, along with a number of other farm owners who spoke to Mada Masr. Mangos can stay frozen for up to two years.

Khaled Eweis, who buys mangoes and stores them in rented freezers then later sells the frozen mangoes to juice and dessert shops, explained to Mada Masr that juice shops usually use the Zebdia variety of mangoes, whereas dessert shops use Keitt mangoes. The latter is expected to be priced at 25 Egyptian pounds ($1.5) this year after having been sold for half the price at the same time last year.

Last year, Eweis bought Zebdia mangoes for 10–12 Egyptian pounds ($0.6–$0.7) per kilo then resold them for 16 ($1) after freezing them. This year, the Zebdia prices ranged from 17–21 ($1–$1.30) per kilo, and Eweis expects that the price after freezing will reach as high as 25 ($1.5).

Photo of an Egyptian man shouldering a basket full of mangoes

The typical average mango yield from one feddan (approx 1.03 acres) ranges between 6 to 8 tons


Threat to water security

This is not the first time that mango production has been hit hard as a result of fluctuating weather patterns. A similar crisis in the mango harvest took place in 2018, and other crops, such as olives, potatoes, wheat, rice and cotton, have also been adversely affected over the last few years, according to Mohamed Fahem, the head of the government Climate Change Information Center. And human-induced changes to global weather patterns as a result of climate change point to increased agricultural challenges in the future.

The deadly heat waves, fires, hurricanes and other extreme weather events that have dominated headlines in recent years will only become more frequent in the coming decades, according to a United Nations report on climate change released in August. In its sixth assessment report, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called human-induced changes to global climate systems "unprecedented." While the report calls for drastic cuts to the global emission of greenhouse gases, much of the effects of climate change are already locked in for decades to come.

Among the areas most vulnerable to climate change is agriculture. A 2018 report titled Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Changes in Egypt found that climate change can have drastic effects on agriculture through changes in temperature, rainfall, CO2 levels and solar radiation. Meanwhile, a 2020 European Union report also found that climate change will pose a threat to global food production in the medium to long-term through projected changes in daily temperature, precipitation, wind, relative humidity and global radiation.

According to various studies, climate change gradually reduces the duration of spring, autumn and winter, which in turn affects the crops that are cultivated during those seasons. In Egypt in particular, the country's agricultural crop map will likely change as a result of a prolonged summer season, according to a study by former Agriculture Minister Ayman Abou Hadid, published in 2010 when he was heading the Center for Agricultural Studies. The study predicted that grain cultivation will gradually move north from Upper Egypt due to increases in winter temperatures, though it did not give a projected timeframe.

Cold and heat waves

Climate change also increases salinity levels in soil due to rising sea levels, which in turn renders the soil only suitable for crops that can handle high salinity yet still require intensive irrigation to mitigate the salinity levels. At the same time, Egypt is currently facing a threat to its water security due to the changes in rain patterns and droughts as well as the potential effects of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

According to Fahim, the increased cold and heat waves Egypt has experienced has led to the emergence of new, mutated varieties of pests and fungal diseases that are resistant to chemicals. For example, in 2018, aphids and whiteflies spread due to the shortened winter season, and the accumulation of these pests led to huge losses in potato and cotton yields. Meanwhile, palm trees were harmed due to the appearance of red palm weevils.

How farmers counter mango losses

The severe losses in the 2021 mango yield were hard to avoid, but is there a way to counter them?

Karam Suleiman, an agricultural engineer, believes that better methods of agriculture, irrigation and fertilization, along with raising awareness among farmers about the dangers of climate change and how to monitor weather fluctuations could succeed in mitigating such outcomes.

However, Egypt appears currently incapable of providing sufficient safety networks to farmers in order to enable them to confront the effects of climate change.

An example of this is apparent in the failure to enforce mechanisms for warning farmers about potential difficulties in upcoming farming seasons. In June, a report by the Center for Agricultural Studies warned about a decline of as much as 85% in the productivity of farms in Ismailia, where mangoes are mainly cultivated, as well as farms in Sharqiya, Suez and Beheira, due to climate change. However, this report only reached about 13 farmers and owners of mango farms, according to agricultural sources who spoke to Mada Masr.

Ahmed Asal, a mango farmer in Qantara in Ismailia, told Mada Masr that there has been no guidance from authorities in helping farmers understand climate change and how to respond to it. "No one told us what to do and we never received any compensation for our losses," Asal said.

Photo of a hand picking a mango from the tree in Egypt

Mangoes are highly sensitive to changes in temperature

Ahmed Gomaa/Xinhua/ZUMA

Agriculture engineers must become climate engineers

Agricultural guidance is a service offered by the Agriculture Ministry to raise awareness and educate farmers about all aspects of farming. The service is usually provided through agricultural engineers who are based in the agricultural cooperatives that exist in every city and town.

Fahim, the head of the Climate Change Information Center, works to play a similar role through his Facebook page and, at times, on various TV channels and newspapers, by raising awareness about weather fluctuations and their effects on agriculture. However, his insights do not have a wide enough audience, particularly at a time when the agricultural guidance is dwindling despite the opening of the Agricultural Guidance Center in Qantara earlier this year under the auspices of the Agriculture Ministry.

"Agricultural guidance has been doing a good job lately, but only in the media, not on the ground," said Alaa Khairy,* an engineer at the Central Laboratory for Climate Change. "If they were really working on the ground, farmers would not have lost as much as they did."

More important crops like wheat will be next

What exacerbates the crisis is that those who are harmed the most are small farmers — those who have between 10 to 20 feddans of land — who cannot afford to take preemptive precautionary measures to mitigate erratic weather patterns nor hire experts who can help them make better decisions about how to handle sudden climate fluctuations. Those farmers also cannot afford to provide covers for their fruits during hot seasons, which is one way to prevent crop damage that is quite costly.

This year's crisis is expected to be repeated in the coming years due to the rapid consequences and effects of climate change on global food security. Aside from mangoes, the effects of climate change are projected to affect far more important crops, such as wheat, with reports showing global wheat crop losses due to heat and drought, a particularly worrisome development for Egypt — the largest importer of wheat in the world.

"In the coming period, agricultural engineers must become climate engineers as well," Suleiman said.


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