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.
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.