Some escapees pay bribes, cross rivers, risk lives to return to Kim Jong Un’s North Korea
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SEOUL —

Not long after nightfall on New Year’s Day, a short, slight man picked a spot along one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world, a quarter-mile from the nearest platoon of soldiers, and scaled a 10-foot-tall wire fence.

Warning lights flashed and an alarm blared. He raced over the snowy terrain, trying to avoid landmines that had been left behind from a war 100 years ago. His movements were hidden by thermal cameras, which made it difficult for him to see.

He made it across 2.5-miles of demilitarized area .by midnight. He was now back in North Korea. Hours later South Korean soldiers would discover they had missed the man’s footprints, and the wisps o his winter jacket, which were clinging to the concertina fence.

More than 33,000 North Koreans have risked their lives to flee their oppressive homeland in recent decades, leaving behind an impoverished economy, fear bred by political gulags and a third-generation cult of personality that demands unquestioning reverence of leader Kim Jong Un and his forebears. Unidentified, the New Year’s fence-jumper was one of many who made their way back to the communist state from the outside.

Officially, about 30 North Koreans are known to have returned after settling in the South, according to South Korean intelligence. Advocates and researchers believe that this number could be much higher, perhaps in the hundreds. Many of those who return to North Korea become propaganda tools, making emotional statements about their regrets at leaving. A few people change their minds and flee again.

Fencing and a guard tower along the Korean demilitarized zone

Wire fencing lines the demilitarized area between North and South Korea. This is one of the most fortified border in the world.

(Ahn Jung-joon / Associated Press )

“It’s hard to approximate, but it’s probably many more,” said Baek Nam-seol, a professor at the Korean National Police University who has worked with and researched North Korean refugees. There are certain ones that aren’t picked by North Korean authorities. We only get confirmation when North Korea chooses to publicize it.”

The man’s crossing spurred a frenzy in South Korea over the breaches in border security, particularly after the revelation that the man had crossed into South Korea in November 2020 along the same route, twice evading detection by South Korean military. His decision to return to North Korea after only a year was a testament to the difficulties North Korean refugees face in adapting to their new country, their isolation, and the economic hardships that have been compounded by the pandemic.

Nearly 1 in 5 North Korean refugees in South Korea said they have thought about going back, according to a 2021 survey by the nonprofit Database Center for North Korean Human Rights. Missing one’s family or hometown is the most common reason. According to the survey, some respondents claimed they were discriminated against in South Korea or that the capitalist society is too competitive.

Joo Seong-ha, who left North Korea in 2002 and works as a prominent journalist at a South Korean newspaper, said he still finds himself thinking of home. I’ve thought about it. He said, “If you have relatives there, how can you not?” Most refugees settle down in their adopted country after a few years. “Every community has outliers. The North Korean refugee community is no exception.” It’s just that this outlier’s way of acting out happened to be crossing the DMZ.”

Two people on an observation deck look toward North Korea.

Observers view North Korea from an observation platform at Paju’s border, South Korea.

(Ahn Youth-joon / Associated Press )

Park Young-ja, a research fellow at the South Korean government-funded think tank Korea Institute for National Unification, said those who don’t have family members in the South have a harder time adjusting. Their continuing challenges — even as tens of thousands of North Koreans have been living in South Korea for decades, appearing on television, running for office and starting businesses — suggest how much further South Korean society has to go toward embracing them, she said.

“It shows the limits of the potential for integration among North and South Koreans,” Park stated. “At the end of the day, what’s needed is integration of the heart.”

Even though the Koreas share a common language, food and culture, in the seven decades since the Korean War, lives on either side of the border have increasingly diverged as the South grew wealthier and North Korea more isolated. On top of international economic sanctions for Kim’s nuclear and military ambitions, North Korea has imposed severe COVID-19 restrictions, furthering control of people and information in and out of the country.

After a brief thaw in relations in 2018, during which Kim met South Korea’s president and both sides dismantled some guard posts in the demilitarized zone as a sign of goodwill, Kim has rejected entreaties and offers of help from the South Korean government.

Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, who ruled for 17 years, had little regard for refugees, seeing them as traitors. But not long after his son took over in 2011, North Korea began a concerted effort to lure escapees to return, offering them amnesty and a comfortable life in exchange for information about other North Korean refugees in South Korea, according to researchers.

“Under Kim Jong Un, they saw the refugees in South Korea as a threat to his hereditary rule,” said Kim Yun-young, an adjunct professor at Cheongju University and former researcher at the Police Science Institute. “There was much more of an effort for conciliation and enticement, sometimes using their remaining families as hostages.”

In one 2016 video posted by a North Korean government-affiliated website, a 40-year-old man who returned out of concern for the wife he left behind said he faced discrimination and economic strife trying to make it in South Korea. I spent only a year, six months in South Korea. But every moment there felt as if it was a decade. Every day was horrible.” Kang Chul-woo said in the video. He was wearing a dark Mao suit and a pin with Kim Jong Un’s grandfather and father near his heart. “I was treated with contempt and disdain wherever I went because I was a North Korean refugee.”

That man again escaped North Korea eight months later, according to South Korean court records. For providing information to North Korean authorities about other refugees, he was sentenced for three years and six month in prison. Other court cases involving North Koreans trying to return to their homeland reveal a desperate urge to send escapees back. One man who worked in construction as a day laborer was defrauded of about $50,000 and was chased by debt collectors. Another had the deposit to his home seized when he couldn’t pay back about $800 he owed the broker who had facilitated his initial escape. Another in his 60s had suffered a stroke and wanted to see his wife and son once more before his death, and begrudged being treated like a migrant worker in South Korea, according to court records.

The North Korean town of Kaepoong seen from Gimpo, South Korea.

Across the heavily guarded border is North Korea’s Kaepoong Town, seen from the Aegibong Peace ecopark in Gimpo (South Korea).

(Lee Jinman / Associated Press )

Some prepared lump sums of cash to pay “loyalty fees” to North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party to be absolved of having escaped the country, which is normally punished as a criminal offense with time in a prison camp or forced labor, according to the records.

The New Year’s jumper, who was about 30 and reportedly told investigators he’d been a gymnast in North Korea, worked as a janitor and struggled to make ends meet, according to local media reports.

The economic plight North Korean refugees can face was highlighted in 2019 when Han Sung-ok, a single mother, and her 6-year-old son were found dead in their Seoul apartment, possibly of starvation. The deaths of the mother and son became a rallying cry to fellow refugees. South Korea provides housing and initial resettlement funds for the first five year, but many people are left without any money after they have paid broker’s fees and are unable to find steady jobs.

Jeon su-mi is an attorney and advocate for North Korean refugees. She said that many are disillusioned with the South’s individualisms and capitalism. She said that the choice for refugees to return home voluntarily should be a chance to reflect on South Korea.

” How ready was South Korea for these refugees to be accepted into its midst?” Jeon stated. Jeon said, “They risked everything to come here and then they risk their lives again to leave. That should be a sign.”

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