South Korea’s government has noticed Kim’s apparent change of heart and one government official who follows the issue said returning defectors were being used for domestic consumption.
“By airing these press conferences in prime time, North Korea is using defectors for internal propaganda,” the official said.
It was unclear how many had gone back under Kim’s rule, the official said. He also had no information on purported defectors trying to entice North Koreans to return with promises of cash.
Pressure to return appears to be exerted in other ways, too. Just over a year ago, one North Korean defector in Seoul, a former state-sanctioned pop singer, began getting mysterious telephone calls in the middle of the night.
The calls lasted for months, with the caller usually saying nothing. He suspected it was North Korean security agents.
“I had nothing to say. It was too terrifying,” the defector said. At around the same time, a North Korean security agent visited his parents saying he should return home.
His parents also attended a public lecture in which authorities promised no punishment if defectors went back.
Defectors in Seoul said Pyongyang’s new approach tapped into their longing for family as well as the difficulty of adjusting to life in South Korea, a country whose per capita income is around 45 times that of the North.
New defectors get interrogated by the intelligence services to weed out spies before going to a settlement center south of Seoul for 12 weeks of training and counseling to help them get to grips with South Korea’s hyper-competitive high-tech society.
They get subsidies for housing and study, as well as job skills training. Many end up doing jobs shunned by ordinary South Koreans.
Around 20 percent of defectors are unemployed, six to seven times higher than the average for South Koreans, the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights said early this year.
Kim Seung-chul, a defector who runs a Seoul radio station that broadcasts news into North Korea, said every defector sympathized with those who returned.
“Defectors all watch these press conferences. We know it’s better to live here but the loneliness and hardship makes us feel like wanting to go back,” said Kim Seung-chul, 52.
The former North Korean singer, who left his parents and siblings back in the North, said he believed returnees got a house and a job, but were put under watch.
“If they are caught with a small problem while being monitored, then it will be all over,” he said.
Additional reporting by Se Young Lee and Stephanie Nebehay