“When defectors come back they are not all trucked to prison. What can happen is they are put on TV ... for propaganda,” the diplomat said.
Exactly why Kim has taken a different view of defectors is unclear.
Several defectors said they believed he was trying to put his own spin on the issue because of the growing influence of an increasingly vocal exile community in the South.
The move also comes as pressure over human rights is mounting on Pyongyang with the recent appointment of members to a UN commission that will spend a year investigating possible crimes against humanity in North Korea.
Defectors will testify at unprecedented public hearings in Seoul this week as part of that investigation.
Better communications have also opened the way for regular contact between defectors and their families in North Korea — allowing stories of life outside one of the world’s most isolated countries to seep back.
For example, defector groups in Seoul estimate that 3,000 phone calls are made each day to the North, routed through Chinese mobile networks along the 1,400km long land border that China shares with North Korea.
An estimated 70 percent of defectors in South Korea also send cash back to family via Chinese brokers along the border, according to a South Korean research institute.
While the younger Kim — who took power following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in late 2011 — has promised no retribution for returning defectors, he has tightened security at the Tumen and Yalu Rivers along the border with China, experts said.
Last year, the number of defectors entering South Korea fell 44 percent to 1,509 from 2,706 in 2011, South Korean government data shows. In 2010, 2,402 defectors arrived and 2,900 in 2009.
During the first quarter of this year, the monthly average of new defectors was down 15 percent from the previous year.
“Rumors that the regime will annihilate three generations [of one family] or that border guards will shoot to kill if anyone is caught crossing the river have swirled around a lot,” said Cho Jung-hyun, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, who regularly interviews defectors. “On the other hand, under what’s called ‘benevolent politics,’ the regime keeps sending out a message of embracing those who left in tough times without punishment.”
Cho said recent arrivals had told him North Korean authorities were more thoroughly examining lists of missing persons to work out which families to put pressure on. Usually when someone defects, their families in North Korea report them as dead or missing.
Pyongyang has held at least six press events since last year with returning defectors that have been broadcast on North Korean state television. The most recent was in June.
All have had the air of choreography familiar to North Korea watchers.
The well-dressed returnees usually sing a song pledging loyalty to Kim and stand up to shout: “Great Marshal Kim Jong-un, thank you so much!” while pumping the air with their fists.
In one press conference last November, Kim Kwang-hyok called South Korea a “shitty world with no love.”
Pak Jong-suk said living in South Korea made her feel like a “miserable slave.” Pak was given a new house in Pyongyang, state media said.