‘Second thoughts’: what makes North Korean defectors want to go back?


No one knows what awaited Kim Woo-joo when he arrived back in North Korea, just over a year after he had fled the world’s most oppressive regime for a life of freedom in the South.

Earlier this month, the 29-year-old former gymnast approached the border separating the two Koreas, scaled a tall barbed-wire fence and walked the 2.5 miles across the heavily armed demilitarised zone (DMZ), dodging landmines but not security cameras, which captured his escape no fewer than five times.

His decision to cross the DMZ back to the North from the South was the latest chapter in an extraordinary series of journeys. In November 2020, Kim had made the same journey in the opposite direction, fleeing his homeland but shunning the route preferred by almost all defectors across the North’s border with China.

Having denied that he was a spy, embarrassed officials in Seoul were forced to acknowledge that Kim had grown so disillusioned with life in South Korea that he was willing to face harassment and possible incarceration in the North by returning there.

His daring flight prompted uncomfortable questions about the treatment of political and economic refugees from the North, for whom life in the democratic, capitalist South sometimes falls far short of expectations.

At about 20%, the unemployment rate among defectors is six times higher than the average for South Koreans, according to the Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights. Although their average monthly income reached a record high in 2019, it still lags far behind that of South Koreans, the unification ministry said.

Last year, 1,582 defectors received financial help in addition to a welfare package they receive when they resettle in the South, while 47% said they were experiencing mental anguish, the ministry said.

They may well have included Kim, a night-time office cleaner who did not appear to have any friends and never spoke to his neighbours, one of whom told reporters that he had dutifully left a mattress and other possessions out for collection before he fled.

“If you worked in industry or for the government in North Korea, you can’t come to South Korea and expect to do an equivalent job,” says Sokeel Park, South Korea country director of Liberty in North Korea, which helps defectors. “You have to take a hit to your relative status, and that can have an effect on mental health, particularly for North Korean men.”

New arrivals spend three months being debriefed to ensure they are not spies, followed by a similar period at Hanawon (house of unity), a settlement support centre where they are given counselling and coached in the practicalities of South Korean life.

They are eligible for government subsidies of 20m won (£12,260) to find a home or a place at university, followed by monthly payments of 320,000 won for five years.

What is lacking, says Park, is the sense of community that the North – for all its disadvantages – had given them, particularly among people from rural areas who struggle to cope with the anonymity of life in a megalopolis like Seoul.

While defectors struggle financially and experience discrimination in education, housing and employment, it doesn’t necessarily follow that their thoughts will turn to redefection, says Park. “It is always a shock when a defector goes back to North Korea, even to other defectors,” he says.

Double defections inevitably attract headlines, but they are relatively rare. Of the 33,800 North Koreans who have defected to the South, just 30 have returned to the North.

“When you think of how many people are involved, human nature means it is inevitable that some people will have second thoughts,” Park says. “It would be very strange if none of those 30,000 defectors had gone back.”

Joo Il-yong was 13 when he left North Korea with his mother and sister, less than a year after his father had arrived in Seoul, where he saved money to enable the rest of his family to escape.

Joo, who graduated from Korea University in Seoul and will begin graduate studies there this spring, is a defector success story, but says he understands why a small number of other North Koreans end up back in the country they were once so desperate to leave.

“One of the biggest obstacles is the systemic difference between the two countries,” says Joo, who arrived in the South in 2009 after his father decided he wanted his children to live in a country where they would have “opportunities and a future”.

The perceived benefits of life in a rich, free society can quickly become a burden, Joo adds. “In North Korea we didn’t have to plan our lives – the state did that for us. But in the South, we have to take responsibility for our own lives. I know from my own experience that resettling in South Korea is a challenge, but it is nowhere near as difficult as living in North Korea.”

Some North Koreans return after sustained emotional blackmail from left-behind relatives, under pressure from North Korea’s secret police. “In some cases, it is simply because they miss their families back in North Korea so much,” Joo says.

“But I don’t see the challenges of life here as harsh or unfair. In fact, they have made me happier, because they motivate me to work and study even harder.”