Some North Korean fugitives finally returned in despair

Soon after New Year’s Day night fell, a short man picked a spot along one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world, a quarter mile from the nearest platoon of soldiers, and climbed onto a 10-foot-high barbed wire fence.

The warning light flashes and the alarm sounds. This man hurriedly traversed the snow-covered rugged terrain, sailing through the countless threats of landmines left over from the war of the last century. His movements came and went in and out of the field of view of the thermal imaging camera.

By midnight, he did it Spanning 2.5 miles of demilitarized zone. He returned home-in North Korea.

A few hours later, South Korean soldiers considered the night riots to be a false alarm. They realized that they had missed the man’s footprints and a strand of down on his winter jacket, clinging to the hexagonal barbed wire on the top of the border fence.

In recent decades, more than 33,000 North Koreans risked their lives to flee their oppressive homeland, leaving behind the fear and fear of poor economic and political gulags. Third-generation cult of personality This requires unquestionable respect for the leader Kim Jong Un and his ancestors. This new year’s hurdler, who has not yet disclosed his identity, became one of the few people who returned to an isolated communist country after experiencing the outside world.

According to South Korean intelligence agencies, official sources say that about 30 North Koreans returned after settling in South Korea. Researchers and advocates estimate that the actual number may be much higher, possibly in the hundreds. Some of the returning people became a propaganda tool of the North Korean government, appearing in videos or press conferences, expressing their regrets over leaving in tears. A few people changed their minds again and fled again.

Fences and guard towers along the North Korean Demilitarized Zone

Barbed wire is set up in the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea, which is one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world.

(An Yongjun/Associated Press)

“It’s difficult to estimate, but it may be more,” said Paek Namseol, a professor at South Korea’s National Police University, who has worked and researched with North Korean refugees. “There must be some people who have not been arrested by the North Korean authorities. We can only be confirmed when North Korea chooses to make it public.”

The man’s crossing of the border in South Korea triggered a frenzy about border security loopholes, especially after the man crossed the border into South Korea along the same route in November 2020 and evaded discovery by the South Korean military twice. However, among those working or researchers who resettled with North Koreans in South Korea, he decided to return only a year later, which marks the latest in the challenges North Korean refugees face in adapting to their new homes, increasing isolation and economic difficulties of the pandemic. prove.

According to a 2021 survey conducted by the North Korean Human Rights Database Center, a non-profit organization, nearly one-fifth of North Korean refugees in South Korea said they had considered returning home. The most common reason is to miss a person’s hometown or family. The survey revealed that some people said that they were discriminated against in South Korea or that the competition in capitalist society was too fierce.

Joo Seong-ha left North Korea in 2002 and worked as a famous reporter for a South Korean newspaper. He said he still finds himself homesick.

“I’ve considered it. If you have a family there, how can you not?” he said. Even so, most refugees took root a few years later and found their way in the adopted land. “Every community has its outliers, and so does the North Korean refugee community. It’s just that the outlier behaved in a way that happened to pass through the demilitarized zone.”

The two people on the viewing platform looked at North Korea.

Observers looked at North Korea from an observation deck on the border of Paju, South Korea.

(An Yongjun/Associated Press)

Park Young-ja, a researcher at the National Institute for Unification of Korea, a think tank funded by the South Korean government, said it is more difficult for people who do not have family members in South Korea to adapt.Their continuing challenges-even for thousands of North Koreans Have been living in Korea She said that for decades, appearing on television, running for public office and starting a business-showed how far South Korean society needs to go to embrace them.

“This really shows that the potential for integration between North Korea and South Korea is limited,” Park said. “In the final analysis, what is needed is inner integration.”

Although North Koreans share a common language, food, and culture, in the seven years after the Korean War, as South Korea became more affluent, North Korea became more isolated, and life on both sides of the border became increasingly divided. In addition to imposing international economic sanctions on Kim’s nuclear and military ambitions, North Korea has also imposed strict COVID-19 restrictions, further controlling personnel and information inside and outside the country.

After a brief thawing of relations between the two countries in 2018, Kim Jong-un met with the South Korean president. The two sides dismantled some posts in the demilitarized zone to show goodwill, but Kim Jong-un rejected the South Korean government’s plea and assistance.

Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, had been in power for 17 years and he was indifferent to refugees and regarded them as traitors. But according to researchers, shortly after his son took over in 2011, North Korea began to work together to attract fugitives to return, offering them amnesty and a comfortable life in exchange for information about other North Korean refugees in South Korea.

“Under Kim Jong-un, they viewed South Korean refugees as a threat to their hereditary rule,” said Kim Yun-young, an adjunct professor at Cheongju University and a former researcher at the Institute of Police Science. “The efforts of mediation and seduction are much more, and sometimes they take the remaining family members as hostages.”

exist A 2016 video According to news published on a website affiliated with the North Korean government, a 40-year-old man returned because he cared about his wife he left behind. He said that he tried to make a living in South Korea but faced discrimination and economic conflict.

“I only stayed in Korea for one year and six months, but every moment there felt like ten years, and every day was like hell,” Kang Cheol-woo wore a black Chinese suit with pins and badges of Kim Jong-un’s father. The video said that Grandpa’s face was stuck near his heart. “I was scorned and despised wherever I went, because I was a North Korean refugee.”

According to South Korean court records, the man fled North Korea again eight months later. He was sentenced to three years and six months in prison for providing information about other refugees to North Korean authorities.

Other court cases involving North Koreans attempting to return reveal a desperation that forces fugitives to return. A man who worked in the construction industry was defrauded of about $50,000 and was chased by debt collectors. Another person confiscated his deposit when he was unable to repay the approximately $800 he owed to the agent who facilitated his initial escape. According to court records, another man in his 60s had a stroke and hoped to see his wife and son again before he died, and he was reluctant to be treated as a migrant worker in South Korea.

The North Korean town of Kaepoong seen from Gimpo, South Korea.

Across the heavily guarded border, you can see the North Korean town of Kaepoong from the observatory of the Aegibong Peaceful Ecological Park in Gimpo, South Korea.

(Li Zhenmin/Associated Press)

Some records show that some people plan to pay a lump-sum “loyalty fee” to North Korea’s ruling Labor Party in order to exempt them from fleeing the country. This is usually regarded as a criminal offense and forced labor in prison camps. .

According to local media reports, the 30-year-old New Year’s jumper reportedly told investigators that he had worked as a gymnast in North Korea and worked as a gatekeeper, barely making a living.

The economic plight that North Korean refugees may face was highlighted in 2019 when Han Sung-ok, Single mother and her 6 year old son They were found dead in their Seoul apartment, probably starved to death. The death of the mother and son became the cry of the refugees. South Korea provides initial resettlement funds and housing for the first five years, but many people have nothing after paying the intermediary fees, making it difficult to find stable jobs.

Jeon Su-mei, a lawyer defending North Korean refugees, said many people are disappointed with South Korea’s individualism and capitalism. She said that choosing refugees to return voluntarily should be an opportunity for South Korea to reflect.

“Is South Korea ready to really welcome and accept these refugees among us?” Jayne said. “They risked their lives to come here, and then risked their lives again to leave. This should be a sign.”