Having risked one’s life to escape North Korea and take up residence in the South, why would anyone choose to go back?
In a widely reported trend this year, several North Korean defectors have made that choice, and NK News had the chance to sit down with Son Jong-hoon to discuss the reasons for re-defection. Son, a former North Korean government employee who has spent 11 years in the South advocating on behalf of the rights of defectors, has announced his intentions to return to the North, citing his disgust with treatment of defectors like himself.
NK News: What made you defect to South Korea? Under whose help did you defect and what kind of difficulties did you face?
Son: There is a particular motive that caused me to defect but it wasn’t anything spontaneous. At age 20, I was already working for governmental bodies, therefore, I was well-aware of the (North Korean) system, (including) the irony of a system in which the economy, society and culture were all sacrificed for the legitimacy and power of the government. Seeing this, I always felt there needed to be a reform of the system or else the nation would never achieve its vision.
Defection was very difficult considering the negative effects it would have on not only me but the people around me. For my wrong-doing they would be hurt; for example, a girl I was dating, or even my co-workers would be punished. So even when I had the idea of defecting, I couldn’t easily go ahead with it.
At the time I was working at a trading company within the Central Committtee; and during New Year’s North Korean companies would not work from January 1st-3rd. But our company, being a governmental organization, worked during those days and from the 4th to the 5th we were given days off. The section chief of our company wanted to have a small New Year’s get together on the 3rd at his house. In the morning I went to the Korean Trade Bank to take care of some work and by 11:40 a.m. I went to my chief’s house. The company members were already at his house and were very drunk. Since we were the Central Committee’s trading company, we had access to Western liquor. When I got there the people were half-drunk and told me to have my meal. There was bulgogi and while I was eating I saw the TV, which was a Japanese Hitachi TV. It was playing a documentary about Western weapons and military. It was on countries which possessed high-tech weapons, such as Sweden, Denmark, Russia, etc. It showed a variety of military weapons and transportation such as military aircraft. I didn’t know what the documentary was talking about since I didn’t understand English. One of the scenes showed Sweden’s military aircraft, but like a helicopter it landed vertically on a snow-covered land.
“The security office told me they were looking for me and told me to come to room 103.”
When I saw that I naturally let out an exclamation about how developed and high-tech it was. After 3 p.m., we all were pretty drunk and therefore went back. I wasn’t too drunk so I went home in my car. I went back to work on the 5th. After 15 days, when I was getting off from work, the security office told me the Minju Chosun (a state-run newspaper) was looking for me and told me to come to room 103. This was like the NSA (the National Security Agency in the U.S.). So I wondered why they were looking for me. If the police came looking for us, we wouldn’t be too scared but if the Minju Chosun was looking for us, it was pretty creepy. We can’t get out alive if we did anything against the government system.
So I went to see the officer (in room103) after work and on my way, during the 15-minute walk there, I tried to think of what acts or remarks I had done or said that went against the government system. But I couldn’t think of anything. So, I went there confidently. Those officers were not at the level of being able to afford smoking Mild 7 (a Japanese brand of cigarettes) but they must’ve gotten them as a bribe or something, and offered me one. I, of course, always smoked Dunhill or Marlboro, so this wasn’t a big deal to me. So we talked over cigarettes and they asked me about my work and didn’t get to the point. So this was pretty suspicious, and after a while they finally asked me if I had done anything wrong. I thought about it but I couldn’t think of anything, so I told them I hadn’t done anything wrong. And they said, “If your wrongdoing comes out of our mouths then you won’t be able to get out of here alive.” This was so scary that my hair stood on end. This was when I had just gotten married. But not being able to go out alive was totally out of the blue.
So I asked them, “What did I do wrong? I can’t seem to remember.” Then he shows me statements written by five of my co-workers, with stamps on them. The officer asked me what I did on the 1st through the 3rd and I suddenly remembered the gathering at the chief’s house. They asked me what I did and I told them the truth: I had gone to the bank in the morning and then to the chief’s house to drink and eat. I then told about seeing the documentary about Western military and weapons. I was always interested in the military, but I didn’t take any special interest (in this program). The officer then told me about the statements (from my coworkers) that had I made remarks praising the Western military. I, then, said how can there be ideas within “things?” Can I not make comments like “splendid” or “high-tech” about those military weapons? The officer got angry and told me this thought itself was a crime. I used to be in the North Korea People’s Central Committee, which oversaw all government bodies, therefore, I was well-aware of the laws, and knew this (offense) wasn’t a big deal. I had just gotten married but now that I was in this situation, and I was taken aback and didn’t know how to deal with it.
“It was a crime to praise the capitalist nations in a nation that was shaped by Kim Jong Il.”
What would I say to my wife? The officer told me to write a statement, but I couldn’t understand how I was being framed for praising a “thing.” He also said that it was a crime to praise the capitalist nations in a nation that was shaped by Kim Jong Il, who had sacrificed his life to build such a splendid nation. Since they placed me under this category of crime, I didn’t know what to say and told the office I was sorry for what I did, that I hadn’t purposefully gone to the chief’s house to watch the movie but it just happened to be in my view. They told me that for a crime of this level, it would be normal to be sent to a prison camp, but as I was affiliated with the government, I was excused and would only be fired from my position. I can’t forget the day I was fired, in January of 1996. That was when my son was only just past 100 days old. My wife used to work in an administrative position in the military but after marriage they are given a break from work. So now that we were married, the only moneymaker in the house was me. Since I was fired from my position, I didn’t know what to do.
In the mid-’90s, North Korea was faced with severe food shortage, so people were dying of starvation. The trading companies could get by through the help of the Chinese. Normal people around me did not even have rice to eat. Pyongyang was unfit for agriculture so people were totally dependent on their rations from the state. Because I was in the trading company for a while, I had some savings like foreign currency and possessions to sell.
One day, the former president of the (trading) company was looking for me. During that time, Jang Seong Taek had direct control over our company. In 1997, when I was about to defect, he was appointed as first deputy. I was a former member of the 2nd Economy Committee, which deals with the military economy, within which I was a member of the Ministry of Defense. Then there were the missile parts and raw materials from Russia, which were accumulated. We used to get weaponry and military information from Russia, but from mid-’90s, North Korea tried to develop its own military technology. As you know during then, China and Taiwan were in constant dispute. But North Korea’s stance on the conflict became quite sensitive as South Korea established relations with China, therefore North Korea felt quite disappointed and surprised that their blood brother, China, who they had relief on for long, had decided to acknowledge South Korea as a legitimate nation. North Korea then turned to Taiwan and decided to establish diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and, if they did, they would get a huge sum in investment and aid from Taiwan. For North Korea during this time of hardship, such an offer would have been a good deal. But thinking about it later, the relations would have been unfavorable to North Korea in the long run because, in a time of war, North Korea would have been stuck between China and South Korea, and therefore they decided to drop the decision to establish relations with Taiwan.
“I was imprisoned for three months in a cold room, during the winter, with only my cotton outfit and shoes.”
But Taiwan was interested in buying the missile materials, and for 1KG it was worth $30 million. This was the YB-168 (chemical symbols). And I worked as the lobbyist in the middle to connect the people needed to make this project happen. I was given $10,000 as compensation. In the middle of the project, something went wrong and I was placed under investigation. The judicial branch then asked me where I got the foreign currency (I had received as a lobbyist). I told them the truth, that my boss had given me this money, but my boss lied and said he didn’t give me any money. Since it had been half a year since I was let go from the trading company, I needed the money to support my family. I kept telling them I received the money from my boss, Song Myung, and there was no other way I could’ve gotten this money. I even told them Song and Jang Seong Taek promised me they would cover everything if anything went wrong.
I was imprisoned for three months in a cold room, during the winter, with only my cotton outfit and shoes. North Korean law states that if the police are not able to obtain testimony for three months, they have no choice but to offer parole. And for three months they were not able to obtain testimony, so I was paroled for health problems, since my health had totally deteriorated. The people at the top hinted that if I don’t run, I wouldn’t survive. They told me to run because I wouldn’t be able to win a dispute against the people at the top.
NK News: When you defected did you do it alone?
NK News: How about your family?
Son: In April 1997 I left Pyongyang and it took me about one week to get to the border since the train I took was very slow and would stop from time to time due to the lack of electricity, poor technology and the mountainous terrain.
In 1998, my brother took his family and my 3-year-old boy and escaped. He lied and told my wife that he would look after his nephew but after three days, my wife wanted our son back so he told her he had given her son away to another family. My brother with his family and my son came to China and we met up there.
My father is a Chinese-born North Korean, and he was educated in China and worked as a high official in the Chinese military. During the Korean War, my father fought for North Korea. So in the eyes of North Korea, my father was an elite with a brilliant career. So I, also being an affiliate of the government, had a privileged position in North Korea. The government treated me well. But South Korea treated me like dirt. I had no personal connections whatsoever, nor were my skills acknowledged in the country. I had no personal network so I had a difficult time. It didn’t matter how smart I was. I majored in business in university but never worked in any such field in Korea. For 10 years I worked at an NGO for the human rights of North Koreans. I was always in a struggle against the South Korean government. Out of my 11 years here, I worked for 10 years to defend North Korean defectors’ human rights.
To the North Korea government, the fact that a North Korean government affiliate, whom the government had been so generous to, had suddenly betrayed the government by defecting is something totally unthinkable. The punishment for those who know the law so well is harsher than for normal North Korean citizens, therefore my brother was shot to death and his wife, too, died in China. My son and I, through a difficult journey via China, finally arrived in South Korea. But these days I keep regretting my decision to come here.
Why did I come to a land where my human rights are not respected? In recent years, the North Korean human rights law that has been in the works from the Korean government has made no progress. Even in the U.S. and Japan North Korean human rights laws have been passed. Korea people and the government seem to turn away from the problems in North Korea. This shows how decadent and lousy the South Korean governmental system is. There is no further work that can be done to improve the lives of North Koreans in South Korea. South Koreans see reunification as a burden for them: it means more taxation. I’ve tried lecturing at universities and speaking with citizens and attending seminars but they did not welcome reunification. No one desires the unification of the two Koreas, at least not the ordinary citizens. Our country under unification can surpass Japan in economic and military power. Seeing this, I ask myself, do I need to make such sacrifices to make these people understand? I never once actually received a proper income. I have a feeling of doubt towards the government and the people. I feel betrayal.
The reason why I’ve decided to go back to the North, the one who knows the North Korean government best, is not to praise the government. That government, which killed my brother and deported my family, I would never go to in order to praise. But I want to see my family one last time and at the same time send a strong message to the South Korean government. There’s an old saying that just because you cannot offer money to the poor that doesn’t mean you should not spit at or ridicule them. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
“The South Korean government is not interested in the people’s well-being”
No one knows what will happen to them in the future. So you may one day be caught in tough situations, therefore you shouldn’t ridicule those who are suffering now. Therefore, the message I want to send is that the people and government are not interested in the nation’s future and well-being but are busy trying to reap the benefits for themselves. The North Korean government, in response, says that if there is constant internal conflict (in South Korea), this is a sign of internal destruction and doom. The government (of the South) is not interested in the people’s well-being. The government should improve the economy for ordinary people and should provide a hopeful vision for the future. They aren’t living for the people but only for themselves. Seeing this, I feel angry and, at the same time, disappointed.
People are born and go back to where they come from. Even though I have lived for only a short period of time, I realized that I don’t want to live a cowardly life. I want to live for the things that I believe and I don’t want to give these things up just to save my life. I want to live a short but a strong life, despite the fact that I am only a small grain in the sand of people, one that lives for the things that I believe in. I know that the North Korean government would never be okay with me coming back. The North Korean government would feel angry and betrayed over my defection, but my career and knowledge acquired in South Korea would be of benefit to the North Korean government.
So I don’t think they would kill me right away. I know that harsh punishment awaits me but the message I send to the South Korean government is worth my life. Compared to the political effect and benefits that could be gained from my re-defection, my life is not very important. I want to send a strong yet refreshing message to South Korea. I want international society to be aware of the North Korean human rights situation and bring such experiences to the surface. Then the international media, like NK News or NHK would follow my journey to North Korea and want to know about my wellbeing. The North Korean government would have to prove my wellbeing, thereby showing international society whether this nation is a legitimate one that safeguards human rights for its people, whether it is truly a nation that is fit for people to live in. This is a time where we can place North Korea in international society to be judged and criticized.
My defection can create a synergy effect by criticizing the North Korean government for its human rights situation and at the same time criticizing the corrupt South Korean government. This will be a great help for the improvement of the Korean peninsula’s future, if the two nations come together and a democracy is established in North Korea. Then South Koreans, during vacation time, can go through North Korea to go to Europe. You would no longer have to take the boat or airplane. That is my dream.
NK News: What are the steps or your plans to re-defect to North Korea?
Son: I do not think that it is desirable/right to re-defect to North Korea in an illegal way. I do not want to disappoint those ordinary citizens, who have supported me and welcomed me. The first method I tried was through my visit to the Ministry of Unification. No one had ever tried to re-defect in a legal method, so the MOU did not what to do, and told me to go to defector department then the defector department told me to go to the department of separated families. I told them I was not there to see my brother go and the only family I have is my son. (But) I at least want to see my mother go when she dies.
NK News: What will you do if these ‘legal routes’ do not work?
Son: My final choice will be to renounce my citizenship. But right now this is impossible to do so in South Korea and only possible in a 3rd country.
NK News: The Korean police has prohibited you from leaving the country – how will this be possible?
Son: The travel ban lasts until August 18th. And if there is further extension, this is a clear violation of human rights. Then I will file a complaint to the Ministry of Justice. It will be made public, therefore, they will probably do something about it.
NK News: If worse goes to worst, will you try for an illegal way back to North?
Son: I will not. I’m going to use the renunciation of citizenship as my method.
NK News: Do you know if your mother is alive or not?
Son: She’s currently living in her daughter’s house, but I don’t think my mother would be too happy with me since my family was sacrificed for my well-being. I know that I am walking on a path where I would never be able to return to South in the future. The MOU said that without an invitation from the North, there is nothing the South can do. Such an irresponsible thing to say. The second method for my re-defection is to seek the help of the Ministry of Justice and register for a renunciation of citizenship. I will be deported as soon as my renunciation is complete.
Then I will be a stateless person and in that state I will go into North Korea. As a stateless person, I wouldn’t have to take into consideration the feelings/situation of the South Korean government and people. Yesterday, the judicial branch ordered the Korean police to prohibit entry and departure for one month, starting from July 18 (when I appeared in the media). And from then they would extend the prohibition after that. I asked the police why they prohibited my entry and departure and the police said they were afraid they would get in trouble. So they’re afraid of being punished but not worried about the abuse of my human rights. I haven’t done anything for my re-defection and yet they put this kind of prohibition on entry and departure. This is so selfish. They only care for their own well-being.
“I’m at a crossroads at the moment, with my son worrying about his future as an adult, and I am worrying as a father.”
I can’t do anything because of the prohibition. Right now my heart feels so heavy, I didn’t go to sleep until 3:30 a.m. I’m at a crossroads at the moment, with my son worrying about his future as an adult, and I am worrying as a father. I don’t know if this choice is the right one. I wonder if this is worth the sacrifice of those around me. I’m not going there for my own good. Even considering the punishment and hardships I will face, I am going there. I am firm in my decision to go but I have so many thoughts in my head right now.
I am thinking about visiting the National Human Rights Commission some time this week or the next. In 2006, when my brother was about to be executed, European nations and the U.S. asked North Korea to stay his execution. The U.S. sent a letter to stop the execution of Song Jung Nam or else NK-U.S. relations would worsen. At the time then, I visited the MOU and National Human Rights Commission, pleading with them to stop the execution, and their reply was that they could not get involved with the human rights situation of North Korea. I want to know what they would say about this situation right now, if I told them the Korean police force is prohibiting me from entry and departure in order to avoid taking responsibility, and what the Korean government is going to do about this. Through this experience, I want to frankly reveal the truth about the South Korean government through the media.
Interview and translation by Hyowon Shin in Seoul. Editing by Rob York.