South Korean defectors flee TO North Korea ‘in search of better life’ - but end up in detention for up to 45 months

Official in Seoul reveals details of preliminary investigation which the six men and one woman had ‘vague hopes’ they would be well treated in the Communist state

More than 25,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea in the last 60 years in search of a better life. It is incredibly rare for them to pass anyone trying to sneak over the border the other way.

On Friday six men and the corpse of a woman were sent back from North Korea after an ill-fated trip which, an official in Seoul has now revealed, stemmed from “vague hopes” they would be well-treated in the Communist state.

After posting a series of pro-North Korea messages online, one of the men saw his pen name appear in the state’s main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, and as a result thought he would be welcomed in the country.

Others were suffering from business failures or family troubles, and believed defection represented an opportunity for a fresh start.

Yet after the ordeal of crossing the border – either by trekking across frozen rivers from China or jumping from a cruise ship on waterways separating the two countries – the men were met with a very different fate.

All were held in North Korean detention facilities for the duration of their stays, which ranged from 14 to 45 months. One man said he was kept in solitary confinement for the entire time, while another reportedly received no medical treatment for a kidney stone he suffered while imprisoned.

In the most tragic individual case, the South Korean official quoted one of the men saying he had strangled his wife when they were detained together, and then tried and failed to kill himself. North Korean officials had previously said the woman died following a “quarrel” with her husband.

The official in Seoul has remained unnamed because an investigation is underway to establish the precise movements and motivations of the group. Agencies reported that at least one other official has confirmed the substance of his reports.

The ongoing preliminary inquiries will establish whether the South Korean authorities can formally arrest the six men, aged between 27 and 67, ahead of a full investigation. Under strict anti-North security laws, anyone caught defecting faces up to 10 years in prison.

The stark details of the group’s ordeal seem to have been released to the South Korean media quite deliberately, and will be expected to act as a deterrent against anyone else considering slipping across the border.

It is nonetheless very rare for anyone to attempt the journey from South to North – and a rarer still sign of cooperation between the countries that they should be returned.

In a statement issued through the North Korean state media on Friday, officials said they had released the men as a humanitarian gesture because they had “honestly admitted to and repented on their crimes”.

“They were investigated by the relevant institutions which generously pardoned them and allowed them to return to the South, where their familes are,” the KCNA news agency reported.

The release was timed to coincide with Pyongyang issuing its approval for a visit next week by 24 South Korean politicians to a recently-restarted, jointly-run industrial facility just across the border in the North.

The factory park has become something of a litmus paper measuring the state of affairs between the two countries, and was shut not long ago as the North reacted angrily to growing UN sanctions in the face of its nuclear programme.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry welcomed the release of prisoners, also describing it as “humanitarian”. Though a tiny number compared to those going the other way, it estimates that hundreds of its citizens have been stopped and detained in North Korean facilities since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

That conflict was only resolved by an armistice, not a peace treaty – meaning the Korean Peninsula still technically exists in a state of war.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Sport
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
News
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
News
Image from a flyer at the CPAC event where Nigel Farage will be speaking
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower