A woman stands in a crowd of North Korean soldiers wearing a pink Hanbok
Source: Eric Lafforgue

All Roads Lead to North Korea: The Defectors Who Want to Return to the Motherland

Nearly 34,000 North Korean defectors live in South Korea. Some, like Lim Ji-Hyun, have over the years garnered some significant media attention, becoming true celebrities in South Korea. Others are living anonymously in the streets of Seoul and beyond. And some, like Kim Ryon-Hui, desperately want to go back home. What makes some defectors return to North Korea?

North Korea is isolated. The country shares a long border with China and Russia to its North and a violent history and the Korean Demilitarized Zone with South Korea in the south. North Korea is notorious for being one of the hardest countries to enter, and it is even more difficult for citizens to leave. Some defectors have shared the stories on their escape - very few were able to successfully cross the Demilitarized Zone. Instead, many used the help of brokers and traffickers to get them across the border with China.

When you think of North Korea, you probably think about one of the countless videos of North Korean soldiers marching along the streets of Pyongyang during military parades, or the seemingly haunting photos of the empty pastel streets of the capital, with empty hotels and fake shops, created just for the eye of foreign visitors. In reality, we know very little about the hermit nation. Though stories have surfaced around the detrimental famine that swept North Korea in the mid to late 1990s caused by failing government food distributions, floods and droughts, as well as the current dire situation with the COVID pandemic, sources in North Korea rarely confirm these tales.

It is estimated that there are around 34,000 North Korean defectors living in neighbouring South Korea alone, and many more are said to currently reside in China. South Korea’s unification ministry’s data shows that over these last few years the number of North Korean defectors to South Korea has dwindled, partly due to tightening border controls by North Korea at their long borders with China and South Korea. Of the 1,127 people who defected from North Korea, 83% were women. The reasons for this lie at the heart of North Korean society.

Until 2015, only North Korean boys had to enter compulsory military service at the age of 17 to serve the country for a period of 10 years. Most of the workforce and students have therefore consisted of women. Many North Korean women are expected to give up their jobs to become housewives when they marry, and never find their ways into positions of power — which are largely held by soldiers and veterans. The promotion of Kim Jong-Un’s sister Kim Yo-Jong, as a significant player in the North Korean politburo, is, therefore, an anomaly. Park Ji-Hyun, a North Korean defector living in the UK since 2018, told Refinery 29 that when the famine hit North Korea in the 1990s, men were left working for no money and no food whilst women were unable to do anything but watch. “I saw many dead bodies in the street, in the market, at stations. I was a high school teacher, and, in my register, every day [children] were missing, missing […] I saw all the dead bodies, but I continued to believe the regime [which denied the famine]. I thought that maybe they would quickly solve the problems, and after that life would be normal” Park Ji-Hyun recalls.

Though we are not sure of how many North Korean citizens lost their lives in the North Korean famine, some sources estimate that more than 1.5 million died from starvation. Some women, like Park Ji-Hyun, were given another way to financially support their families: the promise of well-paying jobs in China, working in restaurants as a waitress, or as a housekeeper. Many people cross the border through brokers, who ask for money to provide safe passage out of North Korea to help materialise the promises of a better tomorrow, and who can in some cases peddle money back to the family members of defectors left behind in the North. In many cases, these promises are a mere façade for human trafficking. Park Ji-Hyun herself was trafficked into sex slavery and was deported back to North Korea to serve in a prison camp when the Chinese government discovered her. Ji-Hyun escaped North Korea twice, and now lives in the UK with her son, conceived in China during her time in sex trafficking.

The Disappearance of Lim Ji-Hyun, also known as Jeon Hye-Sung

In July 2017 a 29-minute long video surfaced on the North Korean government-run website Uriminzokkiri (translated: “Our Nation”). Wearing a traditional hanbok gown whilst seated in a beige government office, a woman known as Lim Ji-Hyun explained that “Every day I spent in the South was like hell. When I was alone in a cold, dark, room, I was heartbroken, and I wept every day, missing my fatherland and my parents”. The video appeared on the North Korean website after months of radio silence on Lim Ji-Hyun’s blog and social media accounts. Just three months before the release of the video, Lim Ji-Hyun had vanished from her apartment in Gangnam, Seoul, leaving her belongings and money behind. With her disappearance, she also left her South Korean identity behind, explaining in the video that her real name was in fact Jeon Hye-Sung.

Lim was one of the women who joined the North Korean army voluntarily, back when women didn’t need to serve in the military yet. In an article in Marie Claire, a fellow defector Lee Soon-Sil who also served in the North Korean army explains that sexual violence towards female soldiers like herself and Lim was not unusual: “I treated cases of rape and assault every day […] Women would come to me with bleeding between their legs and injuries after they’d been beaten for resisting. […] Rape was against the rules, but in practice, it was never punished. […] Women got sick from bad food and water, severe exhaustion, rat and insect bites, and many other things.”

Lim’s return to North Korea shocked and surprised many people, especially her online fan base. Lim was a high-profile defector, rising to prominence in South Korea as a result of her appearances on the cable network talk show Moranbong Club, where defectors talk about life in North Korea, and a reality dating program called South Korean Men and North Korean Women. She posted videos online talking about her life in South and North Korea and kept a blog where she wrote: “This is possibly the happiest birthday of my life. Thank you to all the fans who love me — you give me the courage to keep speaking out”. On her blog, she wrote that she had just enrolled in a school and had just celebrated her 26th birthday in Seoul. It is unsurprising that her disappearance, or rather reappearance, sparked many questions. Why did Lim go back to North Korea? Did she go back voluntarily?

According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, Lim Ji-Hyun is one of the 42 North Korean defectors who have gone missing in these past few years. Many of these disappearances remain unexplained, even though most are blamed on foul play of the North Korean secret police by fellow defectors and sources. Like famous defector Yeonmi Park explains in a video on her YouTube channel, this hypothesis is not entirely random. The North Korean government has often slandered defectors who have spoken out against the North Korean government. Something that Lim Ji-Hyun experienced first hand. Yeonmi explains that around 2017 the North Korean government started a “smear campaign” towards Lim as they had done with Yeonmi as well as other famous North Korean defectors. In these smear campaigns the government attacks and discredits the defectors, calling them “traitors” or “human scum”. Yeonmi says that the North Korean government even created porn videos with Lim’s face in them — a method called deepfake where faces can easily be pasted on existing videos. Lim apparently reported these videos to the South Korean police, who verified that these videos were not of her. The slandering nonetheless was a new constant in Lim’s life in South Korea.

Those who want to stay

Some defectors loudly crave to go back to North Korea, one of them is Kim Ryon-Hui who has yearned to go back to North Korea from the moment she arrived in Seoul nine years ago. Kim Ryon-Hui isn’t alone in her plight, in a resolution published on the website of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, there is a mention of North Korean restaurant employees who according to the text were kidnapped and are not held in the South.

In an article by Refinery29, Yun-Ah, a North Korean defector, explains that many defectors feel nostalgic about their homeland: they miss their old lives and their identities before they were refugees. Many hope that Korea will reunite and they will be able to return. On top of that, adjusting to life in South Korea and other places can be difficult.

Kim Ryon-Hui left her daughter and husband behind in Pyongyang when she defected to the South. Like Park Ji-Hyun, Kim Ryon-Hui escaped through China in 2011 to receive medical treatment. Kim tells the Guardian that she quickly discovered that the healthcare she sought was not free in China like she had been led to believe. Though she worked in China to pay her medical and housing bills, she was told that she would be able to make more money in South Korea and return to the North to share the profits with her family. When North Korean defectors arrive in South Korea they are automatically given a South Korean passport, which means that it is illegal to return to North Korea without approval. She tried to forge a passport to return to North Korea but was sentenced to prison where she served 10 months.

“Living here for seven years taught me what it really is like to live here as a North Korean defector,” she said to the Guardian, “North Korean defectors are forever strangers in this country, classified as second class citizens. I would never want my daughter to live this life. […] North Korean defectors are treated like cigarette ashes thrown away on the streets”. According to Chosun Media, a study by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea showed that half of the North Korean defectors living in the South feel like they have been discriminated against. Primarily by people on the street, and becoming the victims of bullying.

So what happened with Lim Ji-Hyun?

In the aftermath of the publication of the first video of Lim Ji-Hyun, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency confirmed that they had started an investigation into how Lim Ji-Hyun was able to re-enter North Korea. Following the first video the North Korean government posted two other videos featuring Lim Ji-Hyun where she distanced herself from her previous negative statements about North Korea, she hasn’t been seen or featured since. Though it is still unclear how Lim Ji-Hyun ended up back in North Korea and her current whereabouts and health, there are multiple theories.

One of the possibilities is that Lim Ji-Hyun indeed returned to North Korea voluntarily. In the video published on Uriminzokkiri, she is critical of life in South Korea, stating that: “I was lured to the South by a delusion that I would eat well and make a lot of money there […] It was not the place I had imagined. I had wandered around everywhere there to make money, working in drinking bars, but nothing had worked out”. She further elaborates that “In the South, where money ruled, there was only physical and psychological pain waiting for people like me who had betrayed their fatherland and fled”.

Life in the South, especially when everything you say and do is being discredited by the North Korean government, can be extremely tough. According to Yeonmi, victims of sexual assault and rape are still blamed in South Korea, rather than seen as victims. Which makes it hard for many of these female defectors who did experience sexual harassment or sex trafficking to adjust and deal with the blaming. These reasons, along with the wish to be reunited with family and friends in North Korea may inspire some defectors to want to, or take active steps, to cross the border again.

According to an article in Marie Claire, Lim was one of the defectors who left North Korea to support her family. A friend of hers told Marie Claire that “She told me her father worked in a big chemical factory, but he developed breathing problems and had to retire”.

The Korea Times cited unnamed North Korean defectors as speculating that Lim Ji-Hyun may have been abducted on the China-North Korean border while trying to help her relatives escape, or when transferring money to her family. At the time of Lim’s disappearance, she had 20,000 dollars in her bank account. Yeonmi Park argues that some of this money Lim Ji-Hyun would send back to her family to help support them like many other defectors are doing through the brokers. “One day she got a call from China, from the broker she used to send money back to her family in North Korea, saying that […] there were some issues with the transfer of the money [asking if Lim Ji-Hyun can] come to China to retrieve the money, this was a trap set by North Korea’s intelligence and China who were trying to kidnap her there”.

Though it has never been confirmed that Lim ever sent money back to her family in North Korea or travelled to China in the months leading up to her disappearance, we do know that she may have had reasons to send money to North Korea and make sure it arrived well to fund her father’s medical treatment and support her family. Nonetheless, no one is sure of what exactly happened to Lim Ji-Hyun, and for now, hypotheses remain hypotheses. Her possible kidnapping by the North Korean Secret Police is not confirmed by any sources or authorities, though it is not unthinkable that given Lim Ji-Hyun’s celebrity status in South Korea she was the target of a campaign to retrieve her back to North Korea. A return that Yeonmi Park argues could be used by Kim Jong-Un to dissuade other citizens not to leave the nation. A strategy that we may have seen with the release of the videos of Lim Ji-Hyun in North Korea.

The status of North Korean defectors in South Korea and beyond is clearly one with many faces. Whilst some defectors yearn to go home, others are likely lured or forced back into the impenetrable borders of the hermit nation. One thing that most defectors can agree on is their wish to be reunited with their families and friends across the border. Until that is possible we might never know what exactly happened to Lim Ji-Hyun and the other defectors who were taken back.

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