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Why North Korean defectors return to one of the world’s most repressive regimes

More than one month since the man crossed the demilitarized zone from South to North Korea, a lot of his life in each nations stays a thriller — as do his causes for returning to the remoted nation dominated by Kim Jong Un.

South Korean media reported that the defector — who hasn’t been formally named, though fellow defectors say he was referred to as Kim Woo-jeong in South Korea — was a former gymnast who largely stored to himself. According to South Korean police, he was a building employee in his 30s who earned cash by doing guide labor.

The man’s case is uncommon — whereas greater than 10,000 North Korean defectors have arrived in South Korea in the previous decade, simply 30 have returned house, the place they face the prospect of being put into pressured labor camps, in accordance to official South Korean knowledge.

But defectors and advocates say even when the man’s rationale for leaving South Korea is unclear, the indisputable fact that some North Korean defectors are prepared to return to one of the world’s most politically remoted nations solely highlights how difficult life might be in the South for North Koreans.

Why individuals defect

Since the Korean War ended with an armistice in 1953, North and South Korea have been separated by an nearly impenetrable border stopping anybody from crossing to the different facet.

Over subsequent a long time, South Korea has modernized, changing into one of the world’s richest and most technologically developed nations. Meanwhile, North Korea has grow to be more and more remoted, with residents topic to widespread poverty and restricted fundamental freedoms.

So it is not laborious to see why individuals might want to escape.

Since 1998, greater than 33,000 individuals have defected from North Korea to South Korea, in accordance to South Korea’s Unification Ministry. However, numbers have dwindled in recent times after Kim imposed even more durable border controls to forestall Covid inflows.

On very uncommon events, defectors — like the former gymnast — handle to escape via the closely guarded demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. The overwhelming majority, like defector Kang Chun-hyuk, flee over North Korea’s prolonged border with China.

Kang’s household made the journey in 1998 when he was 12 years outdated, earlier than lastly making it to South Korea a number of years later.

In North Korea, Kang remembers barely having sufficient meals to survive.

Sometimes, his household would make a single portion of dry noodles right into a meal that may feed him and his dad and mom for per week.

“It wasn’t worth going to school, so me and my classmates stole food like corn or potatoes,” he stated.

According to a survey of 3,000 individuals launched this 12 months by the North Korean Refugees Foundation, meals shortages are one of the most frequent motivations for defection, with practically 22% saying that was why that they had defected. The most frequent motive given — at 23% — was that folks did not like being managed or monitored by the North Korean regime.

Once they arrive in South Korea, there are measures in place to help them. Defectors bear a obligatory, 12-week schooling session to assist them regulate to life of their new house. They’re given monetary help and lodging, and entry to well being care and employment providers.

But even so, life for defectors is commonly a battle.

Finding work and becoming in

Before Kang Na-ra — no relation to Kang Chun-hyuk — defected in 2014 as a youngster, she thought her life in South Korea would mirror the Okay-dramas she watched in secret in the metropolis of Chongjin.

But South Korea was a far cry from the romantic world she’d seen on display.

Kang Na-ra’s mom defected earlier than her — she doesn’t need to say why — however their life collectively in South Korea was not what she’d hoped.

The North Korean border county of Kaepoong from a South Korean observatory at the southern boundary of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas.

Her mom labored lengthy hours and was typically away from house dancing in a North Korean defectors performing group to make ends meet. Although Kang Na-ra spoke the similar language, she was lonely and had few pals in South Korea.

Another defector, who requested not to be named or additional recognized for concern of repercussions for his household remaining in North Korea, stated he additionally struggled with tradition shock when he defected a number of years in the past — even vibrant and colourful indicators and the abundance of English phrases utilized in language in South Korea made him really feel uncomfortable.

“You don’t see things like that in North Korea,” stated the defector. “I didn’t like many things in South Korea at first.”

He additionally stated many defectors discovered it tough to get a job.

Statistics for 2020 launched final 12 months by South Korea’s Unification Ministry discovered defectors had the next unemployment fee than the basic inhabitants, with 9.4% of defectors unemployed, in contrast with 4% of the basic inhabitants in December 2020.

“Getting a good job is important, but even South Koreans who are raised and educated here find it difficult to get a decent job,” he stated. “You can imagine how hard it can be for North Korean defectors.”

Kang Chun-hyuk’s household was given a flat by the authorities once they made it to South Korea in 2001 after three years in China. But his thick North Korean accent made it laborious for him to slot in at college and he dropped out. He labored in guide labor till he was 25 years outdated, not sure if he would have the ability to ever do anything.

For others, the battle to regulate and discover work can have lethal penalties. In 2019, North Korean defector Han Sang-ok was discovered useless in her condominium along with her 6-year-old son after she failed to pay her payments for months.

A water meter inspector seen a foul odor coming from the condominium and referred to as the police, who discovered two closely decomposed our bodies and an empty fridge, main the police officer to be aware hunger as the suspected trigger of demise.

Separation pains

But not all defectors have desires of a vibrant life in South Korea.

Kim Ryon-hui is a uncommon case of a defector who arrived nearly by chance.

The 54-year-old, who lived a comparatively upscale life in North Korea, went to China in 2011 to go to kinfolk and search medical look after liver illness. But when she arrived, she discovered Chinese medical doctors wished cost upfront.

Kim Ryon-hui desperately wants to get back to North Korea.

Kim stated a dealer advised her Chinese individuals typically went to South Korea to earn cash. So, she signed up for a journey to South Korea and left her North Korean passport with the dealer group — not realizing that meant she would by no means have the ability to return house.

Kim feels hostility from South Koreans, particularly when North Korea’s chief fires missiles. She advised CNN she struggled to adapt to a capitalist society ruled by market pressures and to perceive what she sees as a dog-eat-dog world.

“It’s like we’re oil and South Korea is water, so we can’t mix,” she stated.

That’s a standard sentiment for defectors. According to the North Korean Refugees Foundation survey, whereas most persons are joyful in South Korea as a result of they will stay a free life and earn relative to how a lot they work, many are sad with the stage of intense competitors.

In North Korea a packet of coffee costs $100, and that's a problem for Kim Jong Un

But the hardest half for Kim is the separation from her household. South Korean legislation prevents any communication with individuals in North Korea and South Koreans can’t journey there. Unless Kim sneaks again into North Korea, or the two Koreas attain a peace settlement, she has little probability of seeing her household once more.

Kim final noticed her daughter when she was 17 — now her daughter is 28. Kim is just ready to talk along with her household via journalists who take letters and items for her to North Korea, however that hasn’t been doable since North Korea closed its borders due to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

“It’s scary to be alone,” she stated. “When I see lights on in other apartments in the evening, I imagine families having dinner together. That’s the saddest and loneliest feeling.”

Why defectors return

Despite the difficulties of being in South Korea, the overwhelming majority keep put. For most, that is as a result of the advantages of staying in South Korea are far larger than the dangers they face in the event that they return.

Seo Jae-pyeong, the director of the Association of the North Korean Defectors, defected in 2001. In the 20 years he is lived in South Korea, he is solely identified one defector personally who returned to North Korea.

She was a health care provider with a household again in North Korea who did not understand her brother was bringing her to South Korea, he stated.

“She didn’t have a reason to defect and she couldn’t get used to life in South Korea,” Seo stated.

Anti-North Korea activists and refugees from North Korea attend a protest against a summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, in Seoul on February 26, 2019.

He questioned what number of of the 30 defectors who returned to North Korea had left of their very own free will. He stated some might have been blackmailed or kidnapped close to the border between China and North Korea.

Others might need had main monetary difficulties that left them with few different decisions.

Lee Na-kyung, a defector activist for single dad and mom and folks with disabilities from the North, stated by the time many defectors arrive in South Korea they have already got main money owed to brokers who helped them cross the border.

Some defectors pay their authorities settlement cash to the brokers, after which sink additional into debt as they battle to discover work, in accordance to Lee, who defected from North Korea in 2005 after her husband was framed for a criminal offense she says he did not commit.

For some, the hardship of life in South Korea does not meet their expectations. She is aware of of one man who was a high-ranking navy officer in North Korea who may solely discover work in a junkyard in South Korea. “He said that he would rather die at home instead of dying as a junkman,” she stated.

What subsequent?

A month after the gymnast Kim crossed again into North Korea, it is unclear whether or not he’s nonetheless alive.

Although the South Korean navy noticed him on surveillance footage crossing the barbed wires into the demilitarized zone, they failed to cease him, the South Korean navy’s Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Won In-choul stated in a briefing in January.

He was seen 4 instances on safety digital camera on the south facet of the border, and as soon as after he crossed the Military Demarcation Line.

North Korea warns of 'crisis beyond control' in heated statements aimed at US and South Korea

At one level, troopers mistook him for a defector coming from the North. At one other level, they went to discover him. Later, they discovered no hint of him besides a feather caught on a wire that they suspected had come from his puffer jacket.

There have been “no unusual movements” of the North Korean navy over the incident, South Korea’s Defense Ministry spokesman Boo Seung-chan stated final month at one other briefing.

And whereas North Korean state media has crowed about previous defectors returning house, there was no point out of final month’s defector in state information publications.

For these in South Korea, it is a reminder that the nation’s insurance policies to assist defectors may nonetheless be improved. Last week, the South Korean authorities introduced it was launching a brand new workforce to enhance the security of defectors, noting that regardless of its present efforts, some defectors have been nonetheless “experiencing difficulties settling into our society.”

But defector advocates have been doubtful about how efficient these new steps could be, declaring that help measures are in place — they only do not work.

Kang Na-ra on her YouTube channel.

Even defectors who seem to have efficiently made their transition typically battle with the pull again to North Korea.

Two years after she defected, Kang Na-ra advised her mom she wished to return. But she did not need to threat her life after going via a lot to get to South Korea.

Now Kang, 25, is a tv character and YouTuber with greater than 300,000 subscribers who watch her clips about life in North Korea. Her earnings is unstable, however no less than she’s having fun with life.

“Still today, I wonder if I made the right decision,” she stated. “Life here is tough.”

Saeeun Park and Seoyeon Youn contributed to this story from Seoul, South Korea.

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