For years, the South Korean government has been opening its arms to defectors from the North — some 25,000 North Korean defectors are known of in South Korea, having made a journey that is not just arduous but potentially deadly.
But there’s a worrying figure likely to cause some embarrassment to Seoul. Of those 25,000, around 800 are currently unaccounted for, Chung Min-uck of the Korea Times reports. These 800 are largely believed to have fled to China and Southeast Asian countries, eventually planning to return home. Some may have already succeeded — in one notable case this year, a man stole a boat and returned to the North for the fourth time.
Why would someone who has escaped from a country like North Korea wish to return? Some answers may be found in an interview with a 64-year-old former defector named Choi that recently appeared in the North Korean press. According to a summary of the interview in the Korea Times, Choi reportedly said that she was treated as a “subhuman” and South Korean society was “cold-blooded” and lacking in human affection.
Of course, it’s wise to take anything published in the North Korean press with a grain of salt, but South Korea has confirmed that Choi exists and was a North Korean defector. Worse still, she’s just one of 13 “double defectors” who have been interviewed on North Korean television — a powerful message for any North Korean citizens thinking of escaping.
The plight of North Korean refugees in the South has been documented before, and it certainly doesn’t sound like an easy life. Last year Gianluca Spezza wrote about the issue for NK News, pointing out that many North Koreans aren’t able to adapt to life socially (their accents often mark them out and they struggle with a faster pace of life) and financially (many North Korean defectors end up unemployed in the South, lacking employable skills).
While South Korea could perhaps be doing more to help defectors, North Korea has also taken the initiative. Kim Jong-un has also changed North Korea’s policies on “double defectors” according to some reports, not only removing the threat of punishment insisted upon under his father’s regime, but allegedly offering 50 million South Korean won ($45,000) and an opportunity to appear on television in Pyongyang.
It might seem strange to us that people would wish to return to a country where you generally know very little of the outside world, you often go hungry, and there’s a possibility that you (and three generations of your family) could end up in a labour camp system. But it’s an interesting reminder that the politics of life in North Korea are often more complicated than meets the eye.
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