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Calling for compassion, not questions, towards recent defectors

Choi Song Min  |  2016-06-23 18:45

The author of this piece, Choi Song Min (pseudonym) is a defector who is a former high-ranking military cadre. He began to have doubts about the system when he listened to outside radio broadcasts while living in the North. Since 2012, he has worked at Daily NK, where he is a leading writer on the topics of fictions of the North Korean system and the North Korean human rights situation. In 2016, Mr. Choi will be writing a series aimed at providing readers with a detailed account, based on his own experiences, depicting the harsh truths of life for the North Korean people under a totalitarian system and the provocations and fearpolitik employed to sustain it.

The details of how 13 North Korean restaurant workers in China defected to the South is sparking considerable controversy in the South Korean media. 

This marks the first time such an incident has prompted a public debate of this nature despite the fact that there have been over 30,000 defections from the North. The complicating factor is that the majority of defectors are compelled to remain silent on certain issues due to concerns for their own safety and that of their families in the North.

The current controversy is centered on whether the 13 defectors came to South Korea through their own free will or whether it was an abduction by South Korean intelligence. More recent reports are stating that the defectors have been asked to testify in court. This shows a lack of sensitivity to the plight of defectors and their complex personal circumstances. 

It is important to remember that defectors almost always leave loved ones back home, and with their defection comes an overwhelming sense of guilt. This significantly impacts their psychological well-being and ability to integrate into South Korean society. To probe them on how they came to defect would likely cause them significant distress.   

The family members of defectors remaining in North Korea will naturally fear repercussions from the state, warranting the phrases seen on state-controlled media such as "not the type to defect," or that it was likely "not intentional." This is in the grim hope that they may avoid the heinous punishment-by-association that characterizes the North Korean justice system. The regime has likely already decided how to punish the family members and are waiting on the final response from the defectors before taking action. 

As a North Korean defector myself, I would like to ask the people who are persistently requesting a cross examination of these defectors: What exactly is it you would like to hear from these women? Also, for what reason do you believe Pyongyangs allegations, and why do these carry more weight than the statements released by the South Korean government?  

I would like to further ask who would take responsibility for the consequences if the defectors say they defected by their own will. Have they considered the retribution that the regime will inflict on their families in the North, in the name of deterring further defections? 

Now is not the time to be demanding the public interrogation of these individuals. They will soon leave Hanawon and begin the long journey to integrate into South Korean society? The truth will inevitably eventually emerge, and compassionate minds may understand that patience here is justified. 

If the escape was indeed an abduction, as the North Korean authorities assert, the defectors are free to seek help from the media and groups like Minbyun: Lawyers for a Democratic Society. They will also surely tell their stories publicly, and are not being detained by the South Korean authorities. 

Pressuring these individuals to make public statements so soon after their defection can be considered a significant propaganda coup for the North Korean regime. I have one final thought for those who have thrown such passion behind this matter. How about seeking answers from the 30,000 defectors who have already come to the South, and upon learning their stories, offer them the support they deserve? 

*Translated by Phillip Kim and Jiyeon Lee
*Edited by Lee Farrand

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