By Jung Da-min
The latest incident of a North Korean defector's reentry to the North has raised the question among people over why some defectors choose to go back to their reclusive homeland from which they escaped to seek relief from poverty or political persecution.
Defectors who return are unlikely to be very welcomed back by the regime, which considers them "traitors." They could face punishment including imprisonment and would again face the same conditions they originally fled from.
But still, at least 11 North Korean defectors have returned to the North over the past five years, according to the unification ministry's data, excluding the latest event that is still being investigated. However, North Korea watchers say there may have been more returning to the North, as other government data showed 891 defectors' whereabouts were not known, as of July last year.
The most recent returned defector, a 24-year-old man surnamed Kim, came to the South in 2017. He was under police investigation following sexual violence allegations made by another defector against him and is believed to have fled to the North to avoid criminal charges. But North Korea watchers say other defectors have left the South for various reasons.
"The reasons for defectors returning have been diverse but could be classified into three broad groups," said Lee Kwang-baek, president of the Unification Media Group and Daily NK. "Firstly, there are people who return to the North to avoid criminal penalties after being involved in some crimes here. And there are others who face coaxing or blackmailing by the North Korean authorities which often involves pleading from their family members in the North. Lastly, those who have failed to adjust themselves to the social system here choose to return to their homeland."
Lee said he thinks the famous case of Lim Ji-hyun ― a woman who defected from North Korea, made a new life in the South as a TV personality after arriving here in 2014, and then returned to the North three years later in 2017 ― could be explained as a case representing both the second and third groups.
After her return to the North, Lim appeared in a video released on North Korea's propaganda website Uriminzokkiri, identifying herself in the North with the new name Jeon Hye-sung and saying she had "a false illusion" that she could earn a lot of money when she defected to the South but faced a different reality in which she found herself working in bars to get by.
"I assumed that Lim had two problems at the same time: she did not adjust to South Korean society well, and there were also threats and pleading by her family members who were coerced by the North Korean authorities," Kim said, referring to suspicions raised by North Korea watchers that she was abducted by North Korea when she went to China after receiving contact from her family members.
Chun Ki-won, a pastor with Seoul-based Durihana Mission who has been helping North Korean defectors since the 1990s, said he has seen many cases in which North Korean defectors fail to adjust to South Korean society and often fall into criminal activities such as voice phishing.
"While there are people who adjust well to South Korean society, there are others who do not. And helping them settle here is not really about providing money or granting admission to good universities," Chun said. "The focus should be more on helping them find ways to survive on their own, through their own efforts."
He said there are about 34,000 defectors who have come here but they are receiving lesser institutional support and less attention from policymakers under the incumbent Moon Jae-in administration which puts priority on improving inter-Korean relations.
The recent clash between the government and defector activists over sending balloons containing leaflets and USBs which they say tell the truth of the North Korean regime, also showed the conflict between the government and defectors here, Chun said.
An Chan-il, who heads the World Institute for North Korea Studies and is also a former member of the North's military, said defector communities here were concerned if the latest case of Kim's return to the North would give people a wrong impression of defectors.
"Kim's case was a very rare one. He returned to the North through the reverse direction route of the one through which he came to the South," Ahn said. "Defector communities are in a gloomy mood, worrying if South Korean people would criticize defectors as some did over the North's recent demolition of the inter-Korean liaison office in Gaeseong."
He added, "The government should look into its institutional systems of managing defectors and people should not stigmatize all defectors as criminals or fugitives."