By Yuhan Kim, former HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
August 25, 2022
On New Year’s Day of 2022, South Korean border guards were shocked to discover security footage of a North Korean defector clambering over the high barbed-wire fences of the Demilitarized Zone, but unusually, back into North Korea.
The North Korean government has paid close attention to such incidents. For many years, the regime has attempted to convince defectors to return. It has produced propaganda videos featuring defectors’ families and “re-defectors,” and it has used its agents to persuade or even coerce defectors in South Korea into returning. Moreover, the North Korean government has taken an interesting public stance toward those who have returned. Instead of being immediately punished upon return, re-defectors are shown on state TV in interviews in which they speak about the difficulties of life in South Korea.
These interviews of re-defectors should not be dismissed as just another bizarre propaganda operation. Such efforts to utilize re-defectors for the regime’s own purposes not only have a certain degree of effectiveness on North Korean citizens, but also create a dangerous sense of insecurity in the defector community in South Korea.
Re-defection Push Factors
Cases of re-defection, where North Koreans who have escaped to South Korea return to North Korea, are uncommon but not exceptionally rare. According to the South Korean government, only 30 defectors of 34,000 are confirmed to have returned to North Korea in the past decade. This is around 0.08% of the total number of escapees. However, the actual figure is likely far higher. A news article from 2020 notes that there are some 900 escapees whose whereabouts are unknown to the South Korean government. Most are suspected to have gone to China, and according to a leader in the escapee community, “Those who have not been in contact for a long time after going to China should be considered to have entered North Korea.” It is relatively easy for North Koreans to willingly reenter North Korea, usually by going to the North Korean embassy in China.
It is well known that many North Koreans who resettle in South Korea struggle to make ends meet. In many cases, the work skills and educational background of defectors do not match those needed to stay afloat in South Korea’s highly competitive society. As Andrei Lankov notes, “the skills that helped them survive in the cut-throat world of cross-border smuggling operations and the Chinese illegal labor market are useless in South Korea. Hence, defectors, suffering from low income, alienation, and real or perceived discrimination, form a sort of permanent underclass that might even become semihereditary.” Even those with seemingly marketable skills often find life in South Korea difficult.
Hyeonseo Lee, who is a prominent escapee and the author of The Girl with Seven Names, divides escapees into two levels of adjustment, based on their background while in North Korea:
Among the 27,000 North Koreans in the South, two kinds of life have been left behind: the wretched life of persecution and hunger, and the manageable life that was not so bad. People in the first group adjust rapidly. Their new life, however challenging, could only be better. For the people in the second group, life in the South is far more daunting. It often makes them yearn for the simpler, more ordered existence they left behind, where big decisions are taken for them by the state, and where life is not a fierce competition.
Lee’s mother, who was once a government office worker in North Korea, worked in South Korea as a motel cleaner. The work was hard toil. Lee’s aging mother injured her back within a few weeks. Economic hardships, the downgrading of social status, and the immense burden that comes with the freedom to choose creates formidable challenges for escapees seeking into integrate into South Korean society. These hardships could be more bearable if there was a community or family to lean on, but most defectors gave up all they had to come to South Korea and find themselves alone. Experiencing discrimination also makes defectors long for the familiarity and comfort of family. Even those with family in South Korea feel a similar sense of longing. Lee writes how her mother “began to miss her brothers and sisters so much that she would weep for them every night after work,” so much so that one day, her mother confessed that she wanted to return North.
The man who crossed back into North Korea on New Year’s Day this year was a gymnast named Kim Woo-joo. He had entered into South Korea the same way, by using his physical abilities to climb over the barbed wire fence. Yet in South Korea, Kim found himself working the night shift as an office cleaner.
Re-defections Induced by the North Korean Government
Not all escapees return willingly, however. Perhaps one of the most bizarre cases is the disappearance and reappearance of Lim Ji-hyun. Lim was one of many so-called “celebrity defectors” who work in the South Korea media and entertainment industry by sharing their experiences in North Korea. Lim was a former North Korean soldier who had escaped to South Korea in 2014. Since then, she became a rising star on Korean media and talk shows such as “Moranbong Club.” Lim suddenly disappeared in April 2017, leaving $20,000 in her South Korean bank account. Even her close friends in the escapee community did not know her whereabouts.
To everyone’s surprise, in July of that year, she reappeared on North Korean TV alongside another former escapee, Kim Man-bok. In the video, she discussed her media work in South Korea, apologizing for how it had discredited North Korea. In fact, most of the 30-minute video segment focuses on denouncing the “Moranbong Club” as an anti-DPRK show that is full of lies, with South Korean producers prompting escapees to exaggerate and falsify their stories. She stated, “The team tells us, defectors from the north, to say just as how it is written in the script from beginning to end, things that we have never known, seen, and felt…I just read the script written by the enemies and thus committed anti-DPRK crimes that can never be redeemed.” Furthermore, Lim also testified to the difficulties of life in South Korea, stating “First I went around pubs and other places to earn money but nothing went as well as I wished. The only treatment that awaited women like me who betrayed my homeland was only physical and mental pain in the South Korean society in which everything is decided by money.”
Lim Ji-hyun appeared two more times in such videos, once in August 2017 and again in February 2018, when she countered claims that she had been kidnapped. She has not been heard from since. Lim’s disappearance fueled a great deal of speculation. One North Korean escapee, Lee Jun-ho, claimed that everything had been a set-up by North Korea from the start. In other words, Lim had been sent as an agent for the express purpose of gaining media attention in South Korea, so that she could return to the North at the height of her popularity to achieve a propaganda coup for the North. Lee’s speculations are not unfounded, for there have been prior incidents of spies posing as escapees. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that Lim was a spy. The North Korean government saw her as enough of a threat to attempt a smear campaign against her in 2016, as they often do against escapees with celebrity status in South Korea.
The Disappearance of Song Chun-son
On November 9, 2021, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service revealed that a North Korean woman named Song Chun-son, codenamed “Chrysanthemum,” was being charged with leaking an escapee’s personal information to North Korea’s Ministry of State Security. Song’s story reveals the North Korean government’s reach into the escapee community and its efforts to convince defectors to return and denounce the South.
In 2003, Song left North Korea for China, where she married a Chinese man. Four years later, she was apprehended and sent to a labor camp for two years. After her release, Song worked as a broker who facilitated remittances from escapees to their families in North Korea. She was caught by the North Korean authorities and threatened with prison time unless she cooperated. She divulged the contact information of a client to a North Korean agent, who then used that escapee to connect with three other escapees. The agent put the escapee’s family members on the phone with them, and managed to convince one, Kang Chol-woo, to return to North Korea with his escapee girlfriend in 2016. In November of that year, he appeared on state television to speak about his re-defection.
This incident sheds light into how the North Korean government taps into informal channels of communication between South and North Korea, using them to threaten escapees in the South and family members who remain in the North. The Chrysanthemum case also overlaps with the case of Lim Ji-hyun in one aspect. It is suspected that the North Korean government infiltrated channels of communication that are used to send remittances. Park Tae-joon, a spokesperson for the Seoul Metropolitan Police, stated that “Ms. Lim was told that a large sum of money, around $10,000, that she had tried to send home to her parents through a Chinese middleman had gone missing. She hurried to China to retrieve it, but we think it was a trap.”
Analyzing the Effectiveness of North Korea’s Propaganda Videos
North Korea’s strategy of showing re-defectors on state media cannot simply be dismissed as bizarre and irrelevant propaganda. Unfortunately, there is an element of truth to the claims made by those who have re-defected. Even Lim’s statement about South Korean media fabricating and exaggerating stories about North Korean society has a kernel of truth to it. TV programs centered around North Korean escapees have come under criticism for exoticizing North Koreans, simplifying their narratives, and portraying North Korea as excessively backwards and foreign. In order to get higher ratings and compete with other similar programs, reality TV or talk shows focusing on escapees and North Korea tend to seek out the most sensational stories. This, in turn, may incentivize escapees who are applying for the show to exaggerate their audition stories to land a coveted role. North Korea, in turn, criticizes these programs and the defectors who appear on it. One such program, “Ije mannaro gapnida,” reportedly motivated a female North Korean student studying in Beijing to escape to South Korea in 2013.”
North Korea’s re-defector conferences may be more effective than initially thought, particularly against North Koreans who have had exposure to outside information. Countless memoirs by escapees have attested to how exposure to outside information inspired a search for a better life outside of North Korea. In 2014, 85.1% of all defectors were from the provinces of North Hamgyong, South Hamgyong, and Ryanggang, which lie on or near the Sino-North Korean border. Outside information is easier to access in these regions, and it is also easier to escape than from interior regions of North Korea. However, when manipulated by the North Korean regime, prior exposure to South Korean media can potentially dissuade individuals from leaving. A 2015 study by Park Jeong-Ran and Kang Dong-Wan highlights the potential adverse effects that exposure to South Korean media can have North Korean citizens’ perceptions of South Korea. South Korean media often focuses on negative aspects of South Korean society, sensationalizing violence and corruption while highlighting social issues related to inequality and injustice.
Because North Koreans are also increasingly aware of the difficulties of life in South Korea, seeing remarks by re-defectors on state TV can reinforce those perceptions. Green, Denney, and Gleason conducted interviews with North Korean escapees about the effectiveness of the regime’s press conferences with re-defectors. One escapee noted that remarks by re-defectors on North Korean state TV can “garner a sympathetic ear from North Korean residents who know about South Korea.” This escapee added that an acquaintance who had planned to leave North Korea together backed out at the last minute, apparently due to concerns about making a living in South Korea.
Another escapee remarked that “Even without the government, it is already well known from people who have defected that North Korean people are marginalized in South Korea and have trouble finding work and making a living. People have known that for a while.” North Korea’s re-defector conferences can thus reinforce what many North Koreans have heard from trusted friends and family about the challenges of life in South Korea.
In April 2022, the Seoul National University Institute for Peace and Unification Studies reported that “18.59% of the 312 defectors surveyed who had left North Korea between 2017 and 2019 answered in the affirmative when asked whether they ‘regret coming to South Korea.’” While this is a worryingly high proportion, it also indicates that most escapees who have recently arrived in South Korea do not regret their decision to leave North Korea. There are a number of steps the South Korean government can take to counter North Korea’s attempts to pressure escapees to return, according to Nam Jae-sung. These include creating economic incentives for vocational training, providing subsidies to companies that employ escapees, improving screening procedures to better identify North Korean agents, and strengthening the police presence in localities with a large escapee population.
While all of these measures can help address concerns about economic and physical security, they do not directly address escapees’ desire for belonging. North Korea’s state media deftly exploits this vulnerability through a well-coordinated media campaign, augmented by espionage efforts that target escapees. The number of escapees who re-defect remains small compared to those who remain in South Korea. However, the substantial attention given to re-defectors by North Korea indicates their importance to the regime in tightening its control over North Korean society and preventing further attempts to escape.
Yuhan Kim is a rising junior at Yale University, pursuing a double major in history and political science.
 This article is based on an essay that was originally submitted as an academic assignment at Yale University in May 2022. It is published here with the instructor’s permission.
 “Seoul: North Korea Defector Likely Made Rare Border Crossing Back,” Associated Press, January 3, 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/01/03/1069839447/seoul-north-korea-defector-likely-made-rare-border-crossing-back.
 Jeong Rak-In, “목숨 건 탈북 이후 다시 북으로 간 사람들” [Those Who Have Returned North After Risking Their Lives to Escape], Sisa Journal, August 4, 2020. https://www.sisajournal.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=203229.
 Andrei Lankov, “Bitter Taste of Paradise: North Korean Refugees in South Korea.” Journal of East Asian Studies 6, no. 1 (2006): 129.
 Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl With Seven Names (London: Harper Collins, 2015), 281.
 Lee, The Girl With Seven Names, 282.
 Justin McCurry, “‘Second Thoughts’: What Makes North Korean Defectors Want to Go Back?,” The Guardian, January 16, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jan/16/second-thoughts-what-makes-north-korean-defectors-want-to-go-back.
 “Truth Clarified by Jon Hye Song Who Had Been Misused for Anti-DPRK Smear Campaign,” Uriminzokkiri, August 8, 2017.
 Seon-young Kim, “Defector returns to North Korea, appears on propaganda video,” YTN News, July 21, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RwD515lcbSs.
 Jeong, “Those Who Have Returned North After Risking Their Lives to Escape.”
 Abigail Haworth, “Vanishing Act,” Marie Claire, February 17, 2021. https://www.marieclaire.com/politics/a35365775/lim-ji-hyun-north-korean-defector/; “The Loathsome Witch to be Thrown into the Boiling Oil of Hell,” Uriminzokkiri, May 8, 2015.
 Choe Sang-hun, “She Fled North Korea for Freedom. Then She Was Arrested,” The New York Times, November 29, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/29/world/asia/north-korea-defectors-south-korea.html.
 Kim Soo-am, “Bukhan-ui Park In-Sook jaeipbuk seonjeon baegyeong mit uido-wa daeung banghyang” [Assessing North Korea’s Intentions in Propagandizing Park In-Sook’s Re-defection and Possible Responses], Korea Institute for National Unification Online Series 12, no. 27 (2012). https://repo.kinu.or.kr/bitstream/2015.oak/2053/1/0001449881.pdf.
 Haworth, “Vanishing Act.”
 Christopher Green and Stephen Epstein, “Now On My Way To Meet Who? South Korean Television, North Korean Refugees, and the Dilemmas of Representation,” The Asia-Pacific Journal 41, no. 2 (2013). https://apjjf.org/2013/11/41/Stephen-Epstein/4007/article.html.
 Seyi Rhodes, “Unreported World: North Korean defectors become TV stars in the South,” Channel 4, October 25, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X2EPQRKLriQ.
 Green and Epstein, “Now On My Way To Meet Who?”
 Examples include The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee and Long Road Home by Kim Yong.
 Christopher Green, Steven Denney, and Brian Gleason, “The Whisper in the Ear: Re-Defector Press Conference as Information Management Tool,” Korea Economic Institute of America (2015): 6. https://keia.org/publication/the-whisper-in-the-ear-re-defector-press-conference-as-information-management-tool/.
 Park Jeong-Ran and Kang Dong-Wan, “A Study on the North Koreans’ Acceptance of South Korean Media and Their ‘Distorted Images of South Korea’,” Unification Policy Studies 21, no.1 (2012): 239–70.
 Green, Denney, and Gleason, “The Whisper in the Ear,” 7.
 Ko Byung-chan, “Nearly 1 in 5 N. Korean defectors say they regret coming to S. Korea,” Hankyoreh, April 26, 2022. https://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/1040480.html.
 Nam Jae-Sung, “Study on Countermeasures to Curb North Korean Defector’s Return to the North,” Korean Terrorism Studies Review 10, no. 4 (2017): 93–114.
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.