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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.