“I am a citizen of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” North Korean defector Kwon Chol Nam’s banner reads as he protests the South Korean government. “I want to go home.”
The 44-year-old says he crossed the border in the South dreaming of a bright future, but now he cannot find a job and, due to his passport being confiscated, cannot leave the country.
For months, Kwon held a banner every day from 8 am to noon in front of the U.S. embassy in Seoul, the presidential office, the courts, and the National Assembly, but he was forced to stop his demonstration on August 31 due to a health condition.
He arrived in South Korea in November 2014 via China and Thailand, having left the country in August of the same year, but his sudden appearance in media in mid-June aroused some people’s curiosity: so why does Kwon seek to return to the North?
The issue of defectors who wish to return to the North was recently brought back into the spotlight with the case of former TV star Jon Hye Song, who, in July, appeared in DPRK media telling viewers she had lived a “frustrating and hellish life” in her three years in the South.
Regardless of whether she returned home voluntarily or not – and many are skeptical that she did – it should be noted that her complaints about South Korean society are often heard from defectors.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, Tomas Ojea Quintana, previously called on the South Korean government to listen to North Korean defectors who hope to go home.
Ojea Quintana said he could understand their reasons for wanting to return – and the “difficulties” they faced in integrating with the South.
Kwon says he has not adjusted to South Korean society, and the economic difficulties he has had can clearly be seen through his damaged clothing and his visible fury at what he sees as his mistreatment.
“I am a citizen of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. I want to go home”
Due to hardship in his life, he gave up a rented apartment in Ulsan Metropolitan City provided by the South Korean government after being branded as a spy in the region. And he is now living hand to mouth in a small room in Seoul, paying his rent using the deposit from his former apartment.
“I feel uneasy living in the Republic of Korea as I believe people’s hearts, not money should be prioritized,” he tells NK News. “My desire to go to the North will not be changed even if the South gives me gold.”
LIFE AS A STRANGER
“We work being treated as a real fool and we are not even treated as human beings at all,” he says. “Money is not crucial if personality is disrespected. And I also experienced… [South Korean companies] try to avoid fully paying salaries.”
Kwon was taken to a police station and fined last year after, he says, asking a company to fully reimburse him for an agreed wage.
The defector maintains that he received $100 in return for carrying bricks on a building site, but this was $50 less than agreed.
Kwon says he told the company that he would have beaten them up if they didn’t compensate him for his work, admitting that he was also aggressive towards a policeman.
“I also did something wrong. But the culture here is different from North Korean one. Our language is rough even though I didn’t mean to be, as the South Koreans told the police to take me to the police station quickly,” he admits. “I think I am making a reasonable demand, but there is a saying that people stick up for their own kind in North Korea.”
The first legal difficulty he faced after being released from Hanawon, the South Korean government’s processing center for newly-arrived defectors, was a South Korean court’s decision asking him to pay KRW780,000 as punishment for not paying KRW300,000 he owed to a broker who helped him defect.
“I promised myself that I would head to North Korea from then on,” he confesses, saying that continued wage discrimination has confirmed to him his decision to return home is the right one.
It is widely known that North Korean defectors are discriminated in the process of looking for work. South Korea’s unemployment rate in 2016 was 3.7 percent, with an employment rate of 66.3 percent, according to statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
In contrast, the Korea Hana Foundation, a government-run agency charged with offering support to defectors, reports the unemployment rate for defectors was 5.1 percent and the employment rate was 55 percent in 2016.
And although 88 percent of defectors employees are paid workers, only 55.7 percent out of those earning have a permanent job, and they typically work in low-skilled, low salary professions.
“I also did something wrong. But the culture here is different from the North Korean one”
RAID, ARREST, AND DETENTION
After the South Korean government issued his passport in mid-June last year, Kwon began planning to head back to North Korea. Only a few days later, however, he received notice from the Ministry of Justice that he was forbidden from leaving the country.
He claimed that a friend from the North had reported him as a spy, and ten police officers from South Korea’s national security division then raided his home on June 22.
Kwon then says he was detained for around 100 days and sentenced to a year in prison with two years of probation on charges of violating Article 6, “Infiltration and Escape,” of the ROK’s National Security Act.
“I am not an idiot, and I understand the situation. If I said I I would go to North Korea, they would have labeled me as a spy. So, I told them I would not go,” he says, adding he also wrote a letter of apology to a judge.
Kwon soon realized that rumors about him had spread throughout the region.
“So I went to the detective in charge after being released from a detention center and I told him that I would go to North Korea publicly and legally,” Kwon says.
The Ulsan Metropolitan Police Agency refused to confirm anything about Kwon’s case when contacted by NK News.
“This is not the paradise on earth which the broker described”
A prosecutor appealed against him in October, and Kwon went through three trials on appeal, which ended in January. The court turned down the appeal request, citing the social maladjustment caused by his economic circumstances.
Regardless of the judgment of the court, the authorities confiscated his mobile phone, cash, and a notebook in which he wrote that he was proud of North Korea’s sixth nuclear test.
A legal document seen by NK News also showed that $7600 and KRW 600,000 was seized from him by the South Korean authorities. Ultimately, his decision to return to North Korea has impoverished him.
“A saying goes that ‘bad news travels fast.’ Rumors were circulating in Ulsan, so I didn’t have a job open.”
Kwon received emergency living expenses for three months as he was in fragile health and without family in the South – fellow defectors were wary of associating with him.
“I don’t drink alcohol but I like smoking. But I didn’t have money for cigarettes, so I picked up the cigarette-butts from the ground,” Kwon says. “I have been going through more extreme hardship since October last year than one in North Korea.”
“This is not the paradise on earth which the broker described.”
Kwon stayed in a shelter for the homeless in Seoul for a month after leaving Ulsan. But he was asked to leave the place by the man in charge after he confessed that he would return to North Korea if he had the money.
Then, he slept at a public sauna, paying KRW10,000 a night while working as a day laborer.
“I should return fast and pour a drink over the grave of my parents to fulfill my filial duty”
Kwon hasn’t heard from his family in the North – or sent them money – since February 2016. His defection, he says, brought misfortune on them.
“My father was very healthy and well-built…. But he passed away as he was unable to withstand stress after I was missing. I am the youngest of the three sons,” Kwon says. “I should return fast and pour a drink over the grave of my parents to fulfill my filial duty.”
During his interview, he picks up a phone call from a police officer and reports his location, as he is now required to do.
NEW POLICY NEEDED?
One South Korean expert says the government should “fundamentally” reconsider how its support for defectors works.
“Material and institutional support for settlement has been well-established,” Kang Dong-wan of Dong-A University, who also works as chief of the Busan Hana Center tells NK News. “But the problem is the South Korean society’s perception of defectors.”
Continued labeling them as “defectors,” regardless of their settlement period, he says, hampers their social adjustment by causing “psychological anxiety.”
“I think we should put more emphasis on improving the awareness of South Koreans.”
“I AM A PYONGYANG CITIZEN LIVING IN DAEGU”
In her grand appearance in North Korean media in July, Jon Hye Song – the former TV star – mentioned another defector currently under tight scrutiny by the South Korean government: Kim Ryon Hui, who is publicly calling for Seoul to send her back to North Korea.
Kim entered South Korea in September 2011, but claimed that she hasn’t been allowed to receive a South Korean passport.
Imprisoned on charges of violating the National Security Act in 2014 and 2015 after twice attempting to take her own life, she claims that she reported herself to the authorities so she could be deported from South Korea.
“I miss my daughter so much”
At an event marking the launch of her new book, “I am a Pyongyang citizen living in Daegu,” Kim tells NK News that she is concerned about the possibility of being brought back into custody by the authorities.
During the event, it’s clear that Kim has supporters, who approach her to offer messages of support. Kwon, who is also in attendance, does not: he sits alone in the corner of the room.
Kim’s case is different from his: she hoped to stay in the Republic of Korea for two or three months to make money as she had to treat her botulism, a rare and potentially fatal bacterial illness. She claims she was then deceived by a broker, not knowing she would be unable to return to the North to see her family.
“My parents are the most important than my daughter. How can I live as a sinner for the rest of my life if my parents pass away without seeing my face? That is what I am afraid the most,” Kim says. “I miss my daughter so much and I feel sorry since I can’t take care of her.”
North Korea has said that reunions of families separated by the Korean War cannot take place until, among others, Kim is returned home.
It’s impossible to know exactly why either of them so desperately want to return home. The re-defection of Jon Hye Song, for example, prompted reports that she had been kidnapped in China or in some other way coerced into returning to North Korea. This might very well be the case with Kim and Kwon.
Earlier this year South Korean police arrested a man identified as Kang Cheol Woo at Incheon International Airport, who was subsequently detained on charges linked to espionage.
Kang was also a redefector, who had appeared on North Korean media condemning life in the South. He is alleged to have returned to the North possessing a mobile phone containing contact details of fellow defectors and the police officers in charge of protecting them – and handed the information over the DPRK secret police.
Life for defectors in unquestionably hard. Facing discrimination from their Southern compatriots, a competitive job market, and a cultural and linguistic gap, the compensation provided by Seoul simply cannot make up for the worlds of difference between life in the two Koreas.
All this makes it obvious why, very rarely, some decide they want to return home. But it’s important to ask: what exactly is calling them back?
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Kwon Chol Nam
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