Claims that an “accidental” female North Korean defector wishes to return to her homeland have been met with mixed reactions from human rights groups and Pyongyang-watchers, conversations with NK News revealed Thursday.
Video messages exchanged between Kim Ryon Hui – a defector who says she mistakenly went to South Korea in 2011 – and family in the North were exchanged in dramatic scenes revealed by American TV network CNN on Thursday.
“To my wife in South Korea, don’t forget here you have parents, a husband and daughter and a socialist nation,” a sobbing husband in Pyongyang told his wife, in a video message that CNN taped her subsequently watching in South Korea.
Her hysterical response, sent back to Pyongyang and shown to a husband and daughter separated for over four years from her, was met by tears worsened by the fact there was no immediate sign she can return home any time soon.
But coming following other media reports about Kim’s attempts to go back to North Korea, CNN’s emotional video package was met with both suspicion of Pyongyang’s intentions and, correspondingly, criticism of South Korean legislation preventing her going home.
Kim, who has been interviewed by media before about her desire to leave South Korea, has long said she originally went there by mistake, the result of trying to pay for medical treatment and unfamiliarity with the concept of defection.
But while there have been several cases of “redefection” since Kim Jong Un came to power, one North Korea human rights specialist was skeptical of the latest development.
“The North Korean state has a predilection for using truly appalling tactics to put pressure on defectors to return, so I do not believe that she is making these comments of her own volition,” said Michael Glendinning, director of the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea in London.
He continued that it would “not be a wise move” for Seoul to allow her return, “as her safety cannot be guaranteed” in Pyongyang. Indeed, defectors have often been harshly punished by North Korean authorities on their return.
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Yet the Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch Phil Robertson said it was important for both Seoul and Pyongyang to “recognize that people have the right of movement, including being able to leave their country and return to it.
“So if this woman really wishes to return to North Korea, Seoul should not block her way to do so,” he said. “South Korea constantly points out how it is different from North Korea, but now comes the time to prove it — by recognizing that international human rights law protects people’s right to move in and out of their home countries as they wish.”
South Korea’s 1948 National Security Act legislation, which has been much criticized by international human rights groups, prevents unauthorized travel to the DPRK and contact between South Koreans and North Koreans.
Christopher Green, a longtime North Korea watcher and Ph.D candidate at the University of Leiden, said while it was possible the North Korean state “has the capacity to manufacture this kind of drama,” he thought it was unlikely the case.
“The South Korean government doesn’t protest the idea that Kim Ryon Hui wishes to return to North Korea and is being stopped from doing so; in fact, their strategic silence appears to tacitly acknowledge the veracity of the North Korean claim,” he said.
“Whether Ms. Kim’s husband and daughter are simply keen to express their personal devastation at the loss of their mother or are being manipulated by their state is another matter – the reality is probably both.”
Kim has a complicated past in South Korea, which includes a criminal attempt to pose as a North Korean spy in an attempt to get deported back to the DPRK.
Her prosecution for that crime now means it is illegal for her to leave South Korean territory.
CNN’s exclusive report comes a day after an exclusive interview by the American network with a four North Korean satellite researchers and rocket scientists, who Wednesday warned of forthcoming “peaceful” launches.
The network has been invited to North Korea with increasing frequency in recent months, despite the New York-based Associated Press (AP) having a credentials part-time office there.
Green, the Leiden researcher, said CNN’s coverage gave an “instructive” insight into the role of international media in contemporary North Korea.
“In the Kim Jong Un era, major state events have involved inviting along a select group of international media along for the ride – of which CNN is undoubtedly one,” he said, referring to forthcoming 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers Party of Korea (WPK) celebrations on October 10.
“The major event is the hook, but once in North Korea they (CNN) are not able to report freely; they are guided to their stories,” he said.
“They can and probably do push back and seek to follow their own agenda … but a tale of human suffering under division is certainly news, as was CNN’s visit to the Satellite Launch Center, so in these instances they are of course willing participants.
“From Pyongyang’s perspective, this is clearly the most effective way of getting their message across that is currently available,” Green added.
Main picture: CNN screengrab
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