Why Do People Keep “Re-Defecting” To North Korea?

With another family reported to have voluntarily "re-defected" to North Korea, questions are now being asked as to what is motivating people to return after investing so much in originally leaving.
November 11th, 2012
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The recent “re-defection” of a young family from South to North Korea is raising fresh questions about what motivates people to return to the DPRK after investing so much in originally leaving. Their appearance on North Korean media last week was the second time that Pyongyang has so publicly highlighted the case of re-defectors going back in recent months. Coming after news in July that nearly 100 others have re-defected to North Korea this year alone, many are now asking what may be motivating people to go back.

At a press conference on Thursday, Kim Kwang Hyok talked about his time in South Korea to prove  how defectors from the north can not succeed there, underscoring how North Koreans are “snubbed and disdained (sic) everywhere they went.” At the conference his wife reportedly said that she would like to tell those who were taken to the south “to come to their senses and break with cursed south Korean society and come back to the DPRK without hesitation”.  She also added that going back to North Korea was the “only way of finding dignity and genuine life.”

Other defectors believe that Kim and Ko may have returned because of threats to the remaining members of their family. They say that Kim had become a devout Catholic and Ko had just finished training to be a nurse, both indicators that they were adjusting well to the South.  So why did this young family choose to go back to North Korea?

One theory relates to blackmail by the North Korean government. Back in June a 66 year old woman named Pak Jong Suk gave a press conference in Pyongyang to explain her re-defection, underscoring that she had been  “stunned” by the cordial reception and benevolence of Kim Jong Un bestowed upon. However, a report by The Washington Post soon emerged suggesting that the real reason she returned was out of worry that her son, a violinist in his 30s, was being punished for her defection.

According to the Post, in order to explain her initial defection her son had reported to authorities that she had died. However, the true reasons for her disappearance soon came out when the broker who assisted her was arrested. The son and his family were then apparently forced to relocate from the relatively comfy confines of Pyongyang to a more remote province. Pak then faced a choice: return to the North or allow her son to languish in poverty. As such, the Post suggest Pak went back due to coercion.

For policymakers in Seoul, an even more disturbing possibility is that these defectors didn’t decide to go back because of threats to their family, but made the decision based on the feeling that they could never get used to life in the South. It has been well known for years that defectors face an array of problems in attempting to adjust to their new life. An International Crisis Group report found that they “are sicker and poorer than their Southern brethren, with significantly worse histories of nutrition and medical care.” In addition, they face social discrimination based on their accents and vocabulary, as well as a belief by many South Koreans that they are more prone to crime. It is also believed that nearly half of the more than 23,000 defectors were unemployed as of January 2012.

For defectors, the North is now not only wielding a stick, which it has done for many years, but also holding out carrots in the form of forgiveness and a comfortable life. At Kim and Ko’s press conference, they both suffered from “uneasiness and fear as for the treatment they [would] receive upon their return,” but were reminded that “the homeland leniently pardons and warmly treats those who come back to the DPRK, sincerely repentant of their crimes.” The North is obviously trying to lure back defectors for propaganda purposes, especially with the purpose of reducing defection in the first place.

If the number of re-defectors notably increases, it will once again raise questions about the effectiveness of Seoul’s approach to integrating defectors. In addition, if the South has faced such problems integrating only 23-24,000 defectors, how will they handle unification if and when it comes? This will be something to look out for in the next year.

Picture: KCNA

  • Chris Green

    To be fair, the SK government disputes the 100 claim, saying the figure is approx. 10. As ever, the truth is probably somewhere in between.

    • Luke Herman

      Yes – I should have mentioned that SK legislators have a tendency to overstate things

    • SP

      Agreed. And if the ROKG is closer to the truth than Park Sun-young, then – to be nitpicky – maybe the headline is a tad sensationalist.

  • Guest

    Even if ‘re-defections’ are not related to the treatment of defectors by South Korea(ns), this sort of news will hopefully lead to increased awareness surrounding the myriad difficulties faced by North Koreans who settle there; defectors themselves are having to advocate forcefully on this issue. See for example, bit.ly/W3oWSz (Korean) or bit.ly/Zf9Xck (another article, in English).

  • Luke Herman

    Just to make sure there’s no confusion – that last sentence should not suggest that I think unification will happen this year.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bosco.pereira.94 Bosco Pereira

    I think North Koreans will have a really difficult time integrating with the South or anywhere else in the capitalist world. They have no concept of fiscal realities and can easily be taken advantage of. When I visited NK less than a year ago everyone I spoke to had no knowledge of credit card bills, loans, mortgages etc.

  • SP

    Luke, “nearly half” is probably way too high an estimate for the unemployment rate of talbukins in S Korea. A survey by the NK Refugees Foundation in January cited the unemployment rate at 12.1% (n=8,300). That’s still too high of course, but you also have to consider demographic factors of this population – for instance a high proportion of young people and single-mothers compared to the average SK population, which will skew the figure somewhat.

    The broader trend is that the ROKG and SK society should of course accelerate progress, but they have been integrating talbukins for only about a decade, and they are gradually getting better at it with experience. We also have to be realistic with expectations, and recognise that your average first-generation talbukin is never going to do as well as your average SK-born ROK citizen.

  • Frank Brown

    “Defection” is a political act. “Migration” is an economic act. In describing DPRK citizens who move to other countries as “defectors”, you are asking readers to think about everyone who makes such a move in terms of politics. Would you describe people who move from Latin America to the United States as “defectors”? Why or why not? How do those who emigrate from the DPRK differ from other groups of migrants world-wide? To the extent that these articles influence public opinion– and to the extent that public opinion influences policy– please consider the impact your words have on people’s lives in the DPRK.

    From the Book of Common Prayer:

    “For those who Influence Public Opinion

    Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices: Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write what many read; that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous; to the honor of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

    • http://www.facebook.com/shirley.lee.7334504 Shirley Lee

      I’m not an expert on NK politics; but as a writer interested in North Korea, I agree wholeheartedly with your view on the importance of words in forming public opinion. All the more so regarding a topic such as North Korea, which despite the progress in recent discourse still requires much work for its definition in the public sphere. On the term ‘defector’, I presume its use for North Korean escapees is based on a historical accident. The term ‘talbukja’ in Korean plays a more neutral role etymologically, which perhaps could be mirrored in English by those who write about North Korea.

  • http://twitter.com/Chim_Allen Chim Allen

    Check out BR Myers’ book, the Cleanest Race. He has some great explanations.

  • Gabrielle

    Could it be a bit of the two?
    Life in South Korea is certainly not easy for North Koreans. They are, in a sense, foreigners to SK as much as we do, but they are expected (and pressured socially) to think, act, and speak like they were born and raised in SK.

    Not only that, but the defectors are mainly either young students at university age or middle-aged women, both of which groups are heavily reliant on communities around them to get by. University students go to clubs and circles or associations, and middle-aged women need their neighbouring network. Being shuned away from their community means that they can’t make friends, but also that they will miss opportunities, and lack information that is running through those networks.

    Plus, in the case of middle-aged women, working opportunities seems to be more scarce in SK than in NK,limiting their networking opportunities as well…

    But is it enough to make someone go back? They could,after all,migrate to another country… It is possible that they received a little push from ill-intentioned other North Koreans or Chinese Koreans.
    Or simply, the longing of their kin without any hope to be able to see them again was too much to handle.

    • Karthik

      I too had the same feeling in mind when I read the article…..

    • masskim

      We do not really know the full story. We cannot rule out the possibility of repatriation by coercion.

  • you

    People are trying to project their Western experiences onto this story. The South is a very racist, hierarchial society, with much less economic opportunity than we are led to believe, it’s economy being effectively controlled by five large corporations created by the U.S. and Park dictatorship. I knew a woman that was constantly denigrated because she left her family after she was beaten for not getting a top college entrance score and lived homeless for years. Plastic surgery is rampant, the minimum wage is not enforced, union leaders disappear, income is low for a developed country. English instructors must run a battery of 70 health exams to qualify for an E2 visa, the idea that they are dirty, molester degenerates.