Jae H. Ku on North Korean defectors

Jae H. Ku is the Director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS. Before joining the U.S.-Korea Institute, he was the Director of the Human Rights in North Korea Project at Freedom House. Dr. Ku holds a Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, M.Sc. from the London School of Economics, and A.B. from Harvard University. He has taught at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (Seoul, Korea), Brown University, Yonsei University (Seoul, Korea), and Sookmyung Women’s University (Seoul, Korea). His research interests are: Inter-Korean Relations, U.S.-Korea relations, Democracy in Asia, and Human Rights in North Korea. He has been a recipient of both Fulbright and Freeman fellowships.

Some of his recent works include: “Public Opinion, Regionalism and Foreign Policy Evaluation in South Korea,” in National Security, Public Opinion and Regime Asymmetry, Ed. T. J. Cheng and Wei-chin Lee, World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd., Singapore, 2017; Energy Security Cooperation in Northeast Asia, Ed. By Bo Kong and Jae H. Ku, Routledge, New York, 2015; “The Decline of Political Participation in Korea Between 2000-2011,” in Incomplete Democracies in the Asia-Pacific, Ed. By Giovanna Maria Dora Dore, Jae H. Ku, and Karl D. Jackson, Palgrave MacMillan, London, 2014; Co-Editor, China’s Domestic Politics and Foreign Policies and Major Countries’ Strategies Toward China, Korea Institute for National Unification, Seoul, South Korea, December 2012; Co-Author, “The Uneasiness of Big Brother-Littler Brother Relationships: China’s Relations with Neighboring Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Mongolia, and Myanmar,” in China’s Domestic Politics and Foreign Policies and Major Countries’ Strategies Toward China, Korea Institute for National Unification, Seoul, South Korea, December 2012; Co-Author, Northeast Asia in Afghanistan: Whose Silk Road?, U.S.-Korea Institute, SAIS, Johns Hopkins University, March 29, 2011; and Co-Editor, Nuclear Security 2012: Challenges of Proliferation and Implication for the Korean Peninsula, Korea Institute for National Unification, Seoul, South Korea, December 31, 2010.

On September 21, 2017, he spoke with Gha Young Lee CMC '20. Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Jae H. Ku.

Thousands of North Koreans succeed every year in defecting to South Korea so that they can have a better life. In the last couple of years we’ve heard of at least 25 Koreans, including Lim Ji Hyeon, who was a television celebrity in South Korea after she defected, and she’s resurfaced back in the North. And there are other people like Kim Ryen Hi who are campaigning to be sent back to their homeland saying that defecting to the South was a mistake. Why are these people risking their lives to defect, only to return back to North Korea?

This is an interesting and complex question, so let me first give you the background. There are now a little over thirty thousand people who have resettled in South Korea. Beginning mostly in the mid-1990s, the number was in the tens of people who were defecting from North Korea, and that trickle has now turned into a flood. As many as five hundred or a thousand defect each month. However, I’ve also been told recently that that number has dried up – almost nonexistent, unless defectors can make it to somewhere in East Asia. There has been a crackdown on the Chinese and North Korean borders to stop North Koreans from defecting.

Now as you referenced, there are all kinds of defectors. You have the professional diplomats and senior political figures to farmers and industrial workers who left in search of a better place to live. The question is why do some want to go back.

Some of them are homesick, but I think many of them have a guilt complex – that is, a guilt complex of having left loved ones and family ones back home. Also, there is an active effort on the part of the North Korean regime to contact some of the defectors by using family members— coaxing them with rewards, such as telling them if they return to North Korea, they will be given a higher position. Others know that their family members may face a reeducation camp, the loss of their jobs, or even being sent to a labor camp possibly followed by execution. So, there is a lot of guilt in these defectors who long to see their family members.

There are also others like Kim Ryen Hi, but she wants to go back over the Demilitarized Zone. She is making a political statement about crossing the border in order to delegitimize the border and to stress the importance of one nation. So there are lots of different reasons for North Koreans wanting to return home. Recently there were five of these North Koreans who defected and then came back. Maybe they realized that North Korea was better for them and that they couldn’t fit into the intense society of South Korea. In the case of Lim Ji Hyeon, it could have been that she was an agent who had planned to infiltrate and then to return, ultimately to be used as a propaganda tool. Or this was simply an opportunity to better herself when she went back.

While it’s not entirely clear, only twenty-five out of 30000 have gone back, so not a huge number. But, there is, again, an ongoing problem with South Korean society not being able to absorb and assimilate the North Koreans as much as the country could and should.

Upon their arrival to South Korea the North Korean defectors are given South Korean nationality. They denounce communism, they are given humanitarian resources, and they receive funding for their initial resettlement in the South. What kinds of procedures could be implemented to help their resettlement in the South, and what is the discussion around how these North Korean defectors have no legal way of returning to the North?

Both the North Korean and South Korean constitutions claim the entirety of the Korean peninsula as their own territory. According to South Korean law, if defectors make it out of North Korea, they become South Korean citizens. Therefore, they have to follow South Korean laws. These laws include the national security law that restricts visits to North Korea without proper permission. As in any democracy, if these new South Korean citizens (the former North Koran defectors) disapprove of the current law in South Korea, they should use democratic methods to push for a legal change. Now, having said that, given the South Korean security circumstances, I don’t expect the law to be changed any time soon.

It is true that North Korea defectors get government support and go through training when they first come out. These programs are designed to help them become more assimilated into South Korean society and culture. They are also given a lump sum amount of money. Years ago, defectors were celebrated in the South, in part because there were so few of them. But as the number grew, the resources also decreased. This created a problem. They are still given some training, but they are largely just released into the Korean society to assimilate on their own. That is really hard.

What kind of lives do North Koreans usually imagine they will have once they defect from North Korea, and what usually happens to them once they do get out?

The defectors have different expectations, depending on their social backgrounds. Those who defected because living in North Korea was not economically viable, they expected to work hard. If they were starving or their family members died of starvation, and if they make it through to China or elsewhere to South Korea, these defectors are apt to work much harder than others.

On the other hand, there were political elites who defected. They were very well taken care of in North Korea, but came into trouble politically for some reason. Perhaps they belonged to a political faction that was being hunted down and had to run. For example, when Kim Jong Un killed his uncle, many of the political elites connected to him were captured, sent to prison or killed, and many of them were on the run. They had access to money, because they had access to North Korea’s money-making regime. They had resources, and not only financial resources. They had better education, or the ability to speak a foreign language. They had professional skills, such as accounting. Using these skills they could go to the United States, European countries, or South Korea and succeed. So their expectations were different.

For the vast majority of people, however, they initially came shell-shocked. They are not used to the rumble and tumble of South Korea’s competitive society. If they were very young when they defected, they usually do better at assimilating. Those who work hard definitely have a better chance at assimilating. North Korean defectors who come in their 40s and 50s, and grew up in the North Korean political system, don't have the types of skill sets that would allow them to survive in the competitive Korean society.

I want to return to the cases of North Koreans who, after defecting, return back to the North. What are the kinds of scenarios that would happen once the North Koreans defectors return to their homeland?

We have North Koreans who return after they defected, and appear on North Korean TV denouncing the South Korean government. They are critical of the time that they spent in South Korea. Those defectors who come from a privileged position are exploited by North Korea, which would like to have them come back for propaganda purposes. The more educated defectors make good propaganda.

When I speak to the defectors’ leaders, they give me different reasons for why some return. Some defectors return because they fear their families may face punishment. Others simply because they could not assimilate; they realized that they made a mistake. It’s not altogether clear if some of them are punished. They probably go through some kind of punishment depending on their status. If they came into contact with lots of South Koreans and with South Korean Christian organizations, then they are likely to face a severe punishment. I fear that even with their return, and even if they were celebrated on TV, they face a harsh fate because the North Korean government is very fearful of those who had contact with South Korean organizations.

You mentioned recently there’s only been a small score of defectors making it out of North Korea. How does this relate to the North Korean ICBM development, and what does this say about their inner state stability? The crackdown is probably hard.

Whenever there is a crackdown on the border, it’s usually a crackdown on the Korean side; the Chinese would like the trade flowing, economically speaking. Military conflict and war issues are different. What the Chinese always worry about is the destabilization of North Korea, which would then have North Korean refugees flowing into China. China puts a lot of reinforcement on the border and there is a high alert on the Chinese side to look out for the defectors and to return them.

North Korean defectors play an important role in depicting the state of North Korea. They talk about what kind of life they led in North Korea and they are very influential in attracting humanitarian attention from the Western world. But some defectors have later recanted their story. Could you talk about whether there is truth in the outrageous stories we hear about North Korea, and what’s the political motive behind them if there is any?

Certain outrageous stories may or may not be true. For the most part, though, these outrageous stories are indeed true. Some of the problem is with the Western media. We haven’t had a regime with such systemic brutality in a very long time. That isn’t to say it hasn’t happened over the history of mankind. Even in the late 20th century there have been terrorizing regimes both large and small. This is very much happening in North Korea. So when the defectors come out, the defectors who have this knowledge will use this knowledge to their benefit. But not every person has stories. And those who don’t, may have the capacity (based on their status or education) to make their story much more interesting. Some of them are exaggerations. Some North Koreans, when they come out, have absolutely nothing. All they have of value is the information they have, and sometimes they do oversell what they have. Because there are similar stories, some have to be adorned with more interesting details in order to get that story out in public. But that is rare. For the most part these stories are true.

Gha Young Lee CMC '20Student Journalist

“NORTH AND SOUTH KOREA BORDER AT PANJUMON VILLAGE IN THE JOINT SECURITY AREA DMZ DPRK NORTH KOREA OCT 2012” by calflier001, used under CC BY (link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/calflier001/8640025023/)


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