North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is taking a new approach to defectors who have fled his impoverished and repressive state, promising they will not be harmed if they come home and even offering cash rewards, according to some in the exile community.
For some who return from South Korea there is even the chance of a stage-managed performance on state television, although what happens to them after their prime-time appearances is not known in a state where 200,000 people are imprisoned in gulags and where punishment extends to three generations of a family.
One woman last year apologized at a televised press conference in Pyongyang for betraying her motherland and thanked Kim for bringing her under his “profound loving care” while another dubbed South Korea a “shitty world with no love.”
That is in sharp contrast to the approach taken by Kim’s father, who during nearly 20 years in power hid the issue and severely punished the families of those who defected, fearing they would undermine the state with their tales of the prosperous South Korea.
North Korean security agents have been visiting families in the reclusive state for at least the past year, telling them it would be safe for their loved ones in South Korea to come back, several defectors in Seoul said.
Some said they had even heard of people posing as defectors trying to tempt North Koreans in South Korea this year with a promise of 50 million South Korean won (US$45,000) and an opportunity to appear on television in Pyongyang if they returned.
“My mother said, ‘If you have money, come back. General Kim Jong-un will treat you well,’” said one defector in her 30s who lives in Seoul, recounting a recent telephone conversation with her mother, who called her from a North Korean town on the border with China.
“Other defectors are getting that kind of phone call,” said the defector, surnamed Lee, who asked that her full name not be used because she feared reprisals against her family in North Korea.
It is impossible to verify how many of the 25,000 North Koreans who have defected to South Korea have returned. One high-profile case this year involved a fisherman who stole a trawler and returned to North Korea for the fourth time.
Experts said Kim could be trying to show his people that instead of living happily in South Korea, defectors are miserable, have menial jobs and struggle to fit in — something defectors in Seoul say is not far from the truth.
While offering an olive branch to some defectors, Kim has also made it harder for North Koreans to escape by tightening security along the country’s land border with China and defectors and their families still fill the country’s prison camps, experts said.
While it is impossible to verify what happens to North Koreans who return, a diplomat in Pyongyang said a group of nine defectors who were sent home after being detained in Laos in May while trying to get to South Korea had not been harmed.
The UN had said it feared for the group, which included up to five minors and who like other defectors were trying to reach a South Korean embassy in Southeast Asia after having first traveled through China.
“They actually have been quite well treated since they have been back here,” said the diplomat, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of working in Pyongyang. An Amnesty International official also said there had been no reports the nine had been harmed.