N.Korean Defectors Wary as Cross-Border Relations Warm

  • By Kim Myong-song

    May 14, 2018 12:20

    North Korean defectors who have precariously settled in the South are watching warily as the two Koreas cozy up to each other.

    Already last Thursday one TV channel raised suspicions that not all of the members of a group of North Korean women who defected from a restaurant in China in 2016 came to South Korea out of their own volition.

    The following day, the Unification Ministry said, "There is a need to verify the facts." That has raised fears that the government could send some of the defectors back to their oppressive homeland.

    The official position remains that they came of their own volition, but now some news media have raised suspicions that the National Intelligence Service orchestrated their defection.

    Unification Ministry spokesman Baek Tae-hyun said, "There have been new claims by the restaurant manager and some of the women about their mass defection."

    Ho Kang-il, the restaurant manager at the time, told cable channel JTBC, "We followed intelligence agents without knowing our destination." JTBC suggested some of the women who defected wish to return to the North.

    The shift in the ministry's attitude has made other defectors nervous. One woman who came to South Korea in 2008 and is raising a son here said, "I haven't slept more than an hour a night since the inter-Korean summit. People like me who have been living quietly could be dragged off to North Korea any moment."

    North Korean staff who fled a North Korean restaurant in China pose for a photo in this screen grab from CNN on May 12, 2016.

    Some 31,500 North Korean defectors live in South Korea, and many are feeling unsure of their status amid the thaw. They have been seen as having the potential to build bridges between the two sides if the two Koreas reunify but could now find themselves treated as obstacles to the smooth running of the political machine.

    They are complaining about the South Korean government's indifference and ostracism by other South Koreans. To them, it would be a devastating signal if some of the restaurant staff are sent back to the North.

    Defectors who returned voluntarily were not punished since they were considered to have been "abducted" by the South. One defector said, "The fate of the family members they left behind in North Korea is very important for defectors. If they become targets of reprisals, the defectors in the South would come under enormous pressure."

    Defectors already find themselves increasingly marginalized as inter-Korean relations grow closer. First of all, demand for their views on the lecture circuit is drying up. One defector who makes a living giving lectures about the North to South Koreans has not had a single booking since the inter-Korean summit last month and half her bookings have been canceled.

    She had been lecturing two or three times a week for W200,000 a time ($1=W1,069). At one lecture, she was chided for negativity. Since last week, she has been waiting tables to make ends meet.

    Another defector who used to give lectures now works part-time in a convenience store and waits tables at weekends. He says bookings have dried up, and whatever bookings he gets now are for talks about peace.

    Defectors have never felt very welcome in the South, where they are often treated as second-class citizens and regarded as scroungers. This has only got worse since the summit, as reflected in posts on the Cheong Wa Dae website. Around a dozen new posts a day by South Koreans ask the government to send defectors back to the North. They also demand a thorough investigation of the defection of the restaurant workers. By last Thursday, around 2,400 people had clicked their support.

    But another person wrote a post opposing the repatriation, saying, "It is vicious and inhumane to send back defectors to the North who risked their lives coming to the South," and some 7,900 people showed their support. 

    Meanwhile, the women who appeared in the JTBC report are living in fear, scared that their identities and whereabouts may be exposed. They have claimed that their comments were taken out of context in the JTBC report.

    Civic groups supporting North Korean defectors also said their comments were not portrayed accurately. They simply said they miss their homes and wish to see their parents, but the report made it sound as if they were forced to come to South Korea against their will.

    Kim Byung-Jo at the Korea National Defense University said, "North Korean defectors really know the good and bad points of both Koreas. It is important for the government to ensure that they do not feel nervous."

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