Shortly after night fell on New Year’s Day, a small, slender man picked a spot along the world’s heavily fortified border, a quarter mile from the nearest soldier platoon, and climbed a 10-foot barbed wire fence.
The warning light flashes and the alarm sounds. The man hurried across snow-covered rough terrain, navigating the threat of countless mines left over from the wars of the last century, his movements in and out of the thermal camera’s view.
By midnight, he succeeded Across the 2.5-mile demilitarized zone. He’s back home – in North Korea.
Hours later, South Korean soldiers who viewed the night’s unrest as a false alarm would realize that they had missed the man’s footprints and the wisps of down on the hexagonal wire of his winter jacket clinging to the border fence.
In recent decades, more than 33,000 North Koreans have risked their lives to flee their oppressive homes, leaving behind impoverished economic, political third generation personality cult This requires unquestionable reverence for leader Kim Jong Un and his predecessors. The as-yet-unidentified New Year’s Wall Jumper became one of the few to return to the isolated communist country after experiencing the outside world.
Officially, about 30 North Koreans are known to have returned after settling in South Korea, according to South Korean intelligence. Researchers and advocates estimate that the actual number could be much higher, possibly in the hundreds. Some of those who returned have become propaganda tools for the North Korean government, appearing in videos or at news conferences tearfully expressing their regret for leaving. A few changed their minds again and escaped again.
“It’s hard to estimate, but there could be more,” said Baek Nam-sul, a professor at South Korea’s National Police University who has worked with and studied North Korean refugees. “There are definitely some people who haven’t been caught by North Korean authorities. We’ll only be able to confirm if North Korea chooses to go public.”
The man’s crossing sparked a frenzy over border security breaches in South Korea, especially after revelations that the man entered South Korea along the same route in November 2020 and twice evaded detection by the South Korean military. Among those resettling with North Koreans in the South for work or research, however, his decision to return after just a year marks the challenges North Korean refugees face as they adjust to their new homes, their isolation and an economy exacerbated by the pandemic The latest proof of difficulty.
In South Korea, nearly one in five North Korean refugees said they had considered returning home, according to a 2021 survey by the nonprofit North Korean Human Rights Database Center. The most common reason is missing your hometown or family. Some said they had experienced discrimination in South Korea or found the capitalist society too competitive, the survey showed.
Joo Seong-ha, who left North Korea in 2002 to work as a prominent reporter for a South Korean newspaper, said he was still homesick.
“I thought about it, how could you have a family without it?” he said. Even so, most refugees rooted and made their way on adopted lands after a few years. “Every community has its outliers, and so does the North Korean refugee community. It’s just that this outlier manifests itself in a way that happens to be crossing the demilitarized zone.”
Park Young-ja, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a South Korean government-funded think tank, said those without family members in South Korea had a harder time adjusting.The challenge they continue to face – even for thousands of North Koreans have lived in Korea For decades, appearing on TV, running for office and starting businesses — shows just how far South Korean society has to go in embracing them, she said.
“It really shows the limits of the fusion potential of North Koreans and South Koreans,” Park said. “Ultimately, what is needed is the integration of the mind.”
Although North Koreans share a common language, food and culture, in the seven decades since the Korean War, life has grown increasingly divided on both sides of the border as South Korea has grown richer and North Korea has grown more isolated. In addition to international economic sanctions targeting Kim Jong Un’s nuclear and military ambitions, North Korea has imposed strict COVID-19 restrictions, further controlling the movement of people and information into and out of the country.
After a brief thaw in relations between the two countries in 2018, Kim Jong-un met with the South Korean president, and the two sides dismantled some posts in the demilitarized zone in a show of goodwill, and Kim rejected the South Korean government’s pleas and help.
Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, who ruled for 17 years, turned a blind eye to the refugees, seeing them as traitors. But shortly after his son took over in 2011, North Korea began a concerted effort to lure fugitives back, offering them amnesty and comfort in exchange for information about other North Korean refugees in South Korea, according to the researchers.
“Under Kim Jong-un, they saw refugees in South Korea as a threat to his hereditary rule,” said Kim Yoon-young, an adjunct professor at Cheongju University and a former researcher at the Institute of Police Science. “They went the extra mile to mediate and seduce, and sometimes held the rest of their family hostage.”
exist A 2016 video A 40-year-old man who returned because he was worried about the wife he left behind said he faced discrimination and economic conflict as he tried to succeed in South Korea, posted by a North Korean government-affiliated website.
“I’ve only been in South Korea for a year and six months, but every moment there feels like ten years, and every day is like hell,” Jiang Zheyu, dressed in a dark Mao suit emblazoned with Kim Jong Un’s father’s brooch, Grandpa’s face is close to his heart, said the video. “Because I am a North Korean refugee, I am treated with contempt and disdain wherever I go.”
The man fled North Korea again eight months later, according to South Korean court records. He was sentenced to three years and six months in prison for providing North Korean authorities with information about fellow refugees.
Other court cases involving North Koreans trying to return have revealed the desperation to force fugitives back. A temp worker working in construction was defrauded of about $50,000 and pursued by debt collectors. Another forfeited the deposit on his home when he couldn’t pay back about $800 he owed the agent who helped him escape initially. Another man in his 60s who had a stroke and wanted to see his wife and son again before he died was reluctant to be treated like a migrant worker in South Korea, court records show.
Some prepared lump sum cash payments to North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party for “loyalty payments” to avoid escaping the country, which would normally be considered a criminal offense, spending time in prison or forced labor, records show. .
The New Year’s jumper, about 30, reportedly told investigators that he had worked as a gymnast and janitor in North Korea to make ends meet, according to local media.
The potential economic hardship faced by North Korean refugees was highlighted in 2019, when Han Sung-ok, A single mother and her 6-year-old son Found dead in his apartment in Seoul, probably of starvation. The death of the mother and son became a rallying cry for fellow refugees. South Korea provides resettlement funds and housing for the first five years, but many people have nothing after paying brokerage fees, making it difficult to find stable jobs.
Jeon Soo-mi, a lawyer defending North Korean refugees, said many were disappointed by South Korea’s individualism and capitalism. Choosing the voluntary return of refugees should be an opportunity for South Korea to reflect, she said.
“Is South Korea ready to really welcome and accept these refugees among us?” Joan said. “They risked their lives to get here and risked their lives again to leave. That should be a sign.”
This story originally appeared in los angeles times.