Why Would a North Korean Defector Return?

Returned defector Pak Jung-suk standing under portraits of former North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung, left, and Kim Jong Il after speaking to reporters at the People’s Palace of Culture in Pyongyang, North Korea, on June 28, 2012.

Last month, the Guardian published an article reporting the highly publicized return of a North Korean woman who had defected to South Korea, most likely via China. Although the article emphasized the rarity of a defector returning to North Korea from the South, noting only one other known case, the story is really much more complicated. While defections from South Korea to North Korea are incredibly rare, this overlooks the alarming statistic that approximately 50 percent of North Koreans who bribe their way out, via the northern border with China, wind-up bribing their way back in. This prompts the obvious question: why would a North Korean defector ever return to the DPRK? A country with massive food shortages and a ruthlessly repressive regime.

The answer seems to lie in the combination of the regime’s repressive nature and strong ideology. North Korea’s people seem to have a dissonant mixture of love and admiration for the DPRK’s leaders combined with fears of reprisal and punishment. And punishment is a real possibility for North Korean defectors. A failed defection or repatriation from China, can lead to years in harsh gulags (labor camps) or even death. Defector’s families are not spared, and will typically receive sentences just as harsh as their defecting relative. Even family members three generations removed could be labelled ‘hostile’ to the regime and sentenced to life in a prison camp.

However, while a fear of harsh punishment may deter would-be defectors, it does not fully explain why one would return to the North. The explanation lies in the psychological hold the regime keeps over its people. As North Korean expert and author B.R. Myers said, “Nobody tried to bribe their way back in to the Soviet Union, or back in to East Germany … so we need to realize that [North Korea] is a country that survives not by dint of repressiveness alone, but because it is able to inspire its people still.”

This inspiration seems to last in the majority of North Koreans who decided to flee their homeland. According to a 2008 survey of nearly 300 defectors by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Stiduies, 75 percent of North Korean defectors say that they continue to retain affection for DPRK leadership. The North Korean people are raised to believe that the dear DPRK leaders are more caring, affectionate, and valuable than their own lives or the lives of their families. A recent example was the act of a young North Korean girl who drowned in an attempt to save the portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Even more telling was that the leadership publicly rewarded her parents and school-teachers who helped nurture this line of thought.

The regime is certainly capitalizing on the rare return of a defector from South Korea to exhibit their ill feelings toward their southern neighbor, and portray a miserable life in the South. But what is even more telling is the real shame and guilt that defectors feel when they leave North Korea. Pak Jong-suk, during her press release after her return to the DPRK, said she was “an ingrate who had betrayed my motherland to seek better living while others devoted themselves to building a thriving nation, tightening their belts [due to a lack of food].” She also continually referenced “how affectionate” the leadership has been to her and how the dear Kim Jong-un brought her “under his warm care.”

While these certainly may be more the regime’s thoughts than Pak Jong-suk’s (especially the claim that she was “tricked” into defecting by South Koreans), the fact is that so many North Korean defectors – who initially exit through China – voluntarily return. And that many still harbor positive feelings toward the brutal regime, suggests the effectiveness of the government’s rhetoric and teaching.

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