When Son Jong-hun escaped from his desolate life in North Korea more than a decade ago, he could barely have imagined that he would one day wish to return to the hermit state. Yet, faced with indifference and discrimination in South Korea, he is prepared to return home to protest over the treatment of defectors, even though he faces certain imprisonment or death.
Mr Son, who fled his government job in Pyongyang after being imprisoned for praising the capitalist West, is one of about 25,000 North Korean defectors living in the South.
Many defectors arrive in the south having never used an ATM or a mobile phone, or driven a car, and are often bewildered by the pace of life. Shorter, darker and less educated than their wealthier southern cousins, some complain about discrimination in their new home.
“Korean people and the government seem to turn away from the problems in North Korea,” Mr Son told the NK News website. “This shows how decadent and lousy the South Korean governmental system is. South Koreans see reunification as a burden for them. It means more taxation.”
The South, while offering North Koreans the right to citizenship and repatriation, lives in fear that the trickle of less than 3,000 refugees a year will one day become a flood. As defectors arrive in the south they are interrogated to weed out spies, sent to a camp south of Seoul for counselling and reorientation, then released into society with 20 million won (about £11,700) in resettlement money. From there, they are essentially left to sink or swim.
After decades of fratricidal malignancy that poisons relations between the two Cold War enemies, suspicion of the new arrivals is never far from the surface – sometimes not without reason. Spies have been dispatched over the years posing as defectors, and real defectors have been targeted by North Korean assassins.
As the number of defectors has risen, Seoul says Pyongyang has expanded a military reconnaissance unit designed to plant spies in the South or turn real defectors into spies after they arrive, using a combination of cajolery and threats against family left behind. In turn, the South’s National Intelligence Service has stepped up its vigilance and can now legally hold defectors for up to 180 days. At least a dozen defectors have been arrested on suspicion of spying in the past five years, according to the South Korean media.
Mr Son is one of a small number of defectors in the past year who have opted to return, according to NK News. He admitted that fleeing from Pyongyang had hurt his family and friends – his brother was executed after he escaped and his girlfriend and co-workers were punished, he told the news site. But he says he is determined to face his fate to highlight the plight of other defectors.
“I know that harsh punishment awaits me but the message I send to the South Korean government is worth my life,” he said. “Compared with the political effect and benefits that could be gained from my re-defection, my life is not very important.”
Mr Son said South Korea had treated him “like dirt”.
“I had no personal connections whatsoever, nor were my skills acknowledged in the country,” he said. For most of his time in Seoul, he worked at an NGO fighting for the human rights of North Koreans, he said. “I was always in a struggle against the South Korean government.
Seoul has refused to help him return to the North. According to NK News, Pyongyang must formally invited him to return. He must then renounce his South Korean citizenship and will be deported.
He said he did not think he would be killed “right away” but would be milked for his knowledge first. Pyongyang would “feel angry and betrayed over my defection, but my career and knowledge acquired in South Korea would be of benefit to the North Korean government”.