Past Series >
Defector's story

Successful re-settlement requires greater understanding of North Korean defectors

Hyun In Ae, Guest Researcher at Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU)  |  2017-11-01 15:47
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has spent more effort on reigning in defectors than his predecessors. The regime has been improving surveillance to seal off its borders, and enacted unusually harsh policies, including permission for agents to shoot defectors on site.

Moreover, the level of punishment for leaving North Korea has increased. In the past, defection from North Korea to the South was considered reactionary, while crossing the border to China to earn money was often overlooked. The regime has now mandated the same severe level of punishment for both offences.

As China-North Korea and China-South Korea relations have soured in recent years, Chinas restrictions on North Korean defectors have tightened. Defectors who are arrested by Chinese authorities are now repatriated without exception. In a recent report, a North Korean defector family committed suicide in a Chinese refugee camp after learning of their imminent repatriation.

The number of North Korean defectors entering the South -- which once amounted to 3,000 per year -- is dramatically declining in response. Since Kim Jong Uns rise to power in 2012, the number of North Korean defectors has decreased by half, dropping to as low as 1,200. According to data analyzed by the Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee of the National Assembly, the number of North Korean defectors who have entered the South from Jan. to Aug. this year is 780, a 12.7% drop from the same time period last year (894).

North Koreas approach to defectors heading to South Korea has also changed. During the reign of Kim Jong Il, the fact that North Koreans were defecting to the South was covered up, so those living far from the borders were not aware of the issue. However, the North Korean government now openly discusses the problem, and lures defectors back for press conferences in which they are made to say things like, South Koreas National Intelligence Service kidnaps North Koreans and Life in South Korea is miserable for North Korean defectors.  

However, with defections on the rise, the North Korean government has come to the conclusion that it needs a new strategy: manipulating North Korean defectors. This not only deters defections to the South, it also increases suspicion of North Korean defectors living in South Korea.

A prime example is the case of Lim Ji Hyun, a defector who re-entered the North after appearing on several South Korean television shows including Southern Man, Northern Woman and Moranbong Club. When her subsequent interview with North Korean media outlet Uriminzokkiri appeared, there was a heated debate in the South over whether her re-entry was a voluntary act or a kidnapping by the North, and whether she was a spy.

However, it is highly unlikely that Im re-entered the North voluntarily. Those who have lived in the North know how the regime treats criminals, and by its standards, she committed a crime that cannot be overlooked. Perhaps for that reason, she appeared on Uriminzokkiri, a show that North Koreans cannot view.  Listening to her interview, it is difficult to believe what she is saying. In the interview, she claimed that when [she] swam across the Yalu River, [she] was helped and fed. Moreover, the security guards did not punish [her]; instead they acknowledged how much [she] suffered with love and care.

There is no freedom of the press in North Korea. When reporters write an article, it goes through seven rounds of censorship before publication. She would likely have been killed if she did not say what she was told.

There are some in South Korea who criticize defectors who re-enter the North, with some extending this criticism to all North Korean defectors. Such prejudice is often based on ignorance or a lack of compassion, and more efforts are needed to raise awareness among South Koreans, an important role that the popular media can play. In some cases, there is room for misunderstanding when the South Korean media simply reports on the North Korean governments public statements. 

The best strategy to counter Kim Jong Uns plan to manipulate North Korean defectors is to ensure that North Korean defectors successfully re-settle in the South. It is important to create a social environment offering North Korean defectors support and encouragement.
Advertisements, links with an http address and inappropriate language will be deleted.