The number of North Korean refugees reaching South Korea is on the decline. The South Korean government says it’s due to tougher border security, enforced by their ruler, Kim Jong-un. But advocates say there’s also been a rise in the number of North Korean defectors who want to go back.
Son Jeong-hun is one of those who escaped from North Korea more than 10 years ago. Since then, he has helped other North Koreans to resettle in the south. The 49-year-old says that many were surprised when he announced that he wanted to return home.
“No one had ever asked to re-defect to North Korea before,” he says, “The government said there’s no way for me to return and it was illegal. I was told, that at the very least, I needed an invitation from North Korea if I want to visit.”
Jeong-hun says he’s ill and wants to see his family in Pyongyang again before he dies. He is also broke, struggling to pay back a loan and later losing his apartment. He says he now regrets coming to South Korea.
“I’m not making this up, 80 out of 100 defectors say they’d go back to North Korea to be with their families if it weren’t for the punishment they’d receive there,” he says, “They’d go even if it meant they’d only be able to eat corn porridge.”
After publicly declaring his request to re-defect, Jeong-hun says he has been put on an overseas travel ban. But other refugees have made it all the way back home. Over the past year, a handful of defectors have shown up on North Korean television. They say the South Korean government lured them with promises of money but in the end, they say, leaving the motherland turned out badly.
Jeong-hun says these videos make him feel confident that he won’t be punished if he ever does make it back.
“I spent 36 years of my life in Pyongyang, I worked for the government, I know how things work there,” he says. “I don’t expect to be welcomed back with open arms.”
Jeong-hun says that under Kim Jong-il thousands of people escaped, but the new regime may be interested in using him to show “how things are getting better there, that Kim Jong-un’s government is working.”
Some refugee advocates say around 100 North Koreans have quietly slipped back across the border, but according to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, only 13 resettled defectors have returned to the North. Three of those have since come back to the South.
Koo Byoung-sam, head of the ministry’s resettlement program, says defectors have different reasons for returning to North Korea.
“They might have been persuaded by Pyongyang to return,” he says, “Or they might feel nostalgic and miss their families and some might have just not adjusted to life here.”
For many defectors, ‘not adjusting’ means unemployment, failed attempts at starting a business and getting into debt. According to Kim Suk-woo, a former Unification Ministry official, many go bankrupt after paying back the brokers that smuggled them to the south. He says they often pay with their government resettlement stipend of $2,000.
“Even though they receive around US$40,000 from the government, they have to pay the down payment for their apartment or some things like that and then a few sum of money remains in their hands,” he explained.
Suk-woo says civic groups should help defectors pay back the brokers and the government should increase its resettlement stipend. Other defectors can help too by acting as positive examples for newly arrived refugees.
Kim Eun-ju could be one of those role models. She’s also an author, her memoir recently came out, and she defected to South Korea as a teenager. The 27-year-old says she wouldn’t call herself a success yet, but feels she’s on her way. As a refugee, there is a lot of challenge, she says.
“To make it in South Korea, we shouldn’t feel ashamed of asking for help,” she says, “I received a lot of assistance from others and it got me where I am now. There is a bias against North Koreans here, but there are also many people who want to help.”
Kim says she’d never think about going back to North Korea under the current regime.
“They think that they can live well back in the North if they take with them the money they made in South Korea,” she says, “But the fact there’s no freedom there, makes it a big mistake to think that way.”
As for Son Jeong-hun, the refugee who wants to go back to Pyongyang, he says he has fewer people to turn to than ever before and other defectors are worried about speaking to him.
“The South Korean police are monitoring me and also contacting anyone who’s spoken to me. My friends don’t want to be investigated,” he says, “My social life is pretty bad right now.”
Jeong-hun says that makes life in South Korea a lot like life in North Korea.
(This article was first broadcast on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesia’s independent radio news agency KBR68H and broadcast in local languages in 10 countries across Asia. You can find more stories from Asia Calling at www.portalkbr.com/asiacalling.)