Society

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
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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Society

Pomp And Pirouettes: When Ballet Stars Bid Farewell

On June 11, the prima ballerina Eleonora Abbagnato bid farewell to the Paris Opera, under the gold roof of the historic Palais Garnier. It's an obligatory passage for Parisian ballet dancers of a certain age, a moment that is often happy, always dreaded and sometimes salutary.

Ballerina Eleonora Abbagnato performing at her adieux
Eleonora Abbagnato Official Instagram Account
Cecilia Delporte


PARIS — With one last look at Chagall's enchanting fresco, at the teachers who watched her grow up, at the stage that saw her blossom, Eleonora Abbagnato took her final bow. Never has a star ballerina's farewell been so dramatic, as her big exit was postponed by three cancellations due to a strike, and then the pandemic.

"I'm always positive, I think that destiny does things well," she says in her dressing room a few days before her "adieu." "I knew this evening would eventually take place!" This artist, who wanted to model her last dance on Le Parc by Angelin Preljocaj, ended up dazzling the crowd in a tribute to Roland Petit, which nicely echoed her career.

"He is someone I knew at the age of 10, so it was important to me to perform a ballet by this choreographer. The last time I danced Young Man was for Nicolas Le Riche's farewell, I was four months pregnant! It all began with Roland, and it all ends with him." The ballerina has lost none of her taste for the stage, but there are traditions that forge an institution: At the age of 42, each Opera dancer must leave the premises with a final au revoir to the public and the company.

"It's probably less painful than in other foreign companies, especially Anglo-Saxon ones, where there is no age limit but you are summoned to be told that you are no longer in the shape you were when you started out," says the former star Agnès Letestu. But how will this particular evening be remembered, as a rite of passage or the beginning of a new life? "The farewell is both a moment of extraordinary love with the hall, the orchestra pit, the backstage area ... and at the same time the turning of a page in the history of this institution. Even if the phoenix always rises from its ashes through the appointment of a new star," says Brigitte Lefèvre, the Paris Opera's dance director from 1995 to 2014.

No faux pas when choosing the last dance

This uniquely talented artist deserves the same exceptional ceremony created for the departure of Elisabeth Platel in 1999 and Carole Arbo two years later, which was televised for the very first time. For these kinds of events, the star's personal life comes into play — family members are present in the room, children occasionally come on stage. A perfectly choreographed protocol is followed to a tee, mixing various speeches with the arrival of the Minister of Culture; sometimes a special distinction from the Order of Arts and Letters is awarded. Moments of grace are sprinkled throughout the evening, such as the improvised dance between Aurélie Dupont — the director of dance at the time — and the departing star Marie-Agnès Gillot. The festivities continue into the night, charged with excitement and emotion.

These farewells are planned two or three years in advance when the time comes for the dance director to curate the future program. Aurélie Dupont, like Brigitte Lefèvre before her, likes to ask the star which ballet they prefer as their parting performance and which partners should accompany them.

These are intense moments sometimes experienced as mourning.

"There are some dancers who don't want to say goodbye because they don't like it, because the program doesn't suit them or because they don't feel fit enough," says Agnès Letestu. "I wanted to leave the Paris Opera with La Dame aux Camélias. I had talked to Brigitte Lefèvre about it. Except my farewell was scheduled before the ballet was programmed, so I had to find another one, but I did not agree. So I proposed to her to come back and dance it one month after I left the company, which was quite unusual."

Among the most requested works are the legendary ballets Giselle and L'Histoire de Manon. "The stars like to start with love stories that end badly. Everyone wants a ballet with real drama, in two or three acts, rather than a little pas de deux," says Aurélie Dupont. Dupont's first choice, La Dame aux Camélias, had already been scheduled two years earlier for the farewell of Agnès Letestu, so she settled on Manon. This work, heavy with meaning, was Dupont's big return to the stage after a serious knee injury in 1998, when she feared she could no longer dance.

Eleonora Abbagnato performing her final "adieux" at the Paris Opera

Like going to the guillotine

As for the brilliant Karl Paquette, it was with Cinderella — a ballet dear to his heart — that he retired at the Opéra Bastille, Paris' second opera house while many dancers prefer the old charm of the more famous Palais Garnier. "The story is funny, the ballet very narrative — one of the most beautiful successes of Nureyev. I loved the golden costume, the scenic effects, the finale of the grand pas de deux. The strongest moment was my entrance on stage in Act II to great applause, even as the musicians continued to play," he recalls.

These are intense moments sometimes experienced as mourning, like when Marie-Agnès Gillot cried heavily before her final step onto the stage. On that fateful day, Agnès Letestu says she felt a very special sensation, strengthening her senses, from her vision to her hearing. "Everything was multiplied tenfold," says Letestu who, a few months earlier, had the feeling of going to the guillotine. "I was very stressed four months before, I was afraid of hurting myself and not being able to dance, of not being up to it, of not enjoying every moment, of crying," says Aurélie Dupont, whose farewell was finally a calming moment. "I especially remember the applause, people were shouting, standing — it lasted more than 20 minutes. And this love is only for you."

I couldn't let myself be overwhelmed by emotion!

Nicolas Le Riche, now director of the Royal Ballet of Stockholm, evokes a "very strong feeling of corporation, of belonging to an institution that we celebrate at the same time." He was the only artist to bid farewell not to a ballet, but to a "special evening" of total freedom, mixing pieces like L'Après-midi d'un faune by Nijinsky and Béjart's Le Boléro. On stage, tributes were paid in his honor by prestigious guests such as singer Matthieu Chedid and actor Guillaume Gallienne.

"I found this repertoire, which transcended the ages, very moving. I received a magnificent note from Nijinsky's daughter. It's an evening where everyone is allowed to be moved and to live these emotions, except the person who is leaving. I couldn't let myself be overwhelmed by emotion, otherwise, I would have taken a step on stage and collapsed!" he recalls. How long did it take him to prepare such a spectacle? "I feel like answering in the manner of Coco Chanel, who made her hat in two scissor strokes. 'But it only took you two minutes?" says a disappointed customer. 'No, Madam, it took me a whole life," she replies. The same way I drew on all that I lived through," says the dancer.

Group photo of Paris Opera dancers in white tutus dancing in front of the Palais Garnier, with placards in protest of the French government's plan to overhaul retirement age

Paris Opera dancers perform in front of the Palais Garnier to protest the French government's plan to overhaul retirement age — Photo: Maxppp/ ZUMA

To each their own swan song

While Laëtitia Pujol hesitated a long time before making her farewell, hoping to leave discreetly, others end up with departure full of pomp and circumstance, sometimes to their surprise. "It's a moment you think about all the time without really thinking about it. I certainly wasn't looking forward to it and wanted something intimate. This was the opposite," says Karl Paquette. "The director of the Paris Opera at the time, Stéphane Lissner, wanted to leave on the symbolic day of December 31. "I was doubly pressured because the farewell was broadcast in the cinema, and each of my movements was immortalized. On the last day, you are in a particular state of conditioning because you are saying goodbye to 25 years of career and nearly 42 years of life. You have to protect yourself."

When the farewell came, it was a relief.

Only Benjamin Pech experienced his farewell, an evening in February 2016, as a liberation. And for good reason: "I had a hip injury in 2014. I was diagnosed with rapid degenerative arthritis. To remedy it, I needed a hip replacement. My farewell was scheduled for 2016, so I decided not to have the surgery and continue until then. For two years, I held on by dancing practically on one leg and had to turn to a repertoire that was no longer athletic but theatrical, with compositional roles that opened up other perspectives. Isn't a dancer above all someone who comes to deeply impact the spectator? When the farewell came, it was a relief," he says.

The star had chosen to dance alongside Sylviane, an 84-year-old spectator and one of his lifelong fans, who was present during rehearsals, but unfortunately became ill on the day of the performance. Pech took his leave on a program that included Le Parc by Preljocaj, the very piece that gave way to his injury: "I have come full circle."

Bidding farewell to the word "adieu"

Shortly after his or her performance, the future retiree must pass on their dressing room to another star, a moment that is "both very sophisticated and archaic. There are the great speeches, which say that this house will always be yours, but in reality, it becomes otherwise," says Brigitte Lefèvre. "You close the door, you leave and it's over," says Eleonora Abbagnato. But how do these artists project themselves into the future? "What is traumatic is that we are heavily drilled since we entered the dance school at 8 years old, with a professional outline where everything is already decided. How can you exist professionally when you have garnered such admiration, even fascination until now? At 42, most people are in the middle of their career, ours is coming to an end," says Benjamin Pech, who has become ballet master at the Opera of Rome, directed by Eleonora Abbagnato.

It is not a door that closes, but rather another door that opens.

While many stars go on to create or run a company, many experience a profound period of confusion. "I was secretly hoping that someone would call me for a position, that I could be of some value, but it didn't happen that way," explains Nicolas Le Riche. "I had already enrolled at Sciences Po for schooling [in management and leadership]. I had to create my own opportunities."

To remedy this uncertainty, Aurélie Dupont now offers support for company members, offering them a skills assessment and training beyond dance. In the future, Nicolas Le Riche would like the word "adieu" to be replaced by the idea of celebration. "It is not a door that closes, but rather another door that opens." Because under the gold of the Palais Garnier, the stars are eternal.


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