The story described by the author about the possible escape or abduction of girls from a North Korean restaurant to China, brought about a series of comments, some of which contained the assertion that “it is impossible for a North Korean woman to end up in the South against her will, and then afterwards demand to be returned back.” Unfortunately, a similar story is currently the cause for widespread petition. It involves Kim Ryon-hui, a citizen of North Korea, who is demanding to be returned home from South Korea. How could this happen?
46-year-old Kim worked as a dressmaker, and came from a fairly wealthy family by Pyongyang standards. Four years ago, she travelled to China to visit relatives and receive medical treatment as she was suffering from some kind of kidney disease. The treatment proved to be long and far from free-of-charge. Kim did not want to ask her relatives for help, and her waitress’ salary (Kim got a job in a restaurant in Shenyang) was not enough to cover the cost of the expensive treatment.
Around this time, brokers appeared in Kim’s life. These are people who, according to South Korean official statements, engage in the noble smuggling of North Koreans to the “peninsula of freedom.” One broker told her that Chinese citizens often travel to South Korea and earn a lot of money there. Kim wanted to restore her health and go home and thought that by going to South Korea for a couple of months, she would be able to earn enough for her treatment and then return home. Therefore, this gullible woman was deceived from the outset – Chinese Koreans, who often pretend to be refugees, are actively sought out and captured in the South. What’s more, a lot of problems arise owing to illegal immigrants from China.
Kim joined a group of refugees who were supposed to move to the South. At that point, she did not realize that as soon as she signed the documents according to which she would relinquish her North Korean citizenship, she would have no way back.
Anyway, as soon as she began to suspect something, the broker took away her North Korean passport, and the other “refugees” told her that if she left the group and got caught, everything would fall into the hands of Chinese state security, and they would have big problems. So she was forced to stay within the group, and thus ended up in the South.
Kim did not really understand what was really meant by defector status, but on arrival in South Korea, it was revealed to her that there was no way back, and propaganda already labeled her as having “chosen freedom.” To leave the rehabilitation center, Kim had to sign documents in which she rejected communism, and in which she declared that she was willing to abide by South Korean law and become a citizen of the South Korean Republic.
Becoming a political refugee was absolutely not part of Mrs. Kim’s plans, whose family had been left behind. Therefore, she began to demand that they return her back home. However, according to South Korean regulations, this was not possible – defectors cannot leave the country once they have received citizenship. Kim called the North Korean consulate in Shenyang. She also looked for smugglers who could get her back. However, eventually, she hit upon a highly unusual and, in fact, incredibly stupid option – she declared herself a North Korean spy, hoping that after she had been deported to the North, the problem would be solved and the case closed. However, according to South Korean law, a spy who has been captured does not await deportation, but jail time. As a result, in December 2014, she was sentenced to two years in prison for espionage and passport forgery. 9 months after she had been imprisoned (during which time Kim fell into severe depression and attempted suicide), the sentence was conditionally suspended.
Soon after Kim had been released, her story drew the attention of journalists and progressive circles. There was a wave of interested people who were largely sympathetic to her, including Christian pastors as well as CNN reporter Will Ripley, who sat with Kim in a detailed interview. During the interview, Kim, in particular, said: “I have nothing to say, but I couldn’t even imagine that I would end up creating such a big problem for myself.”
CNN correspondents arrived in Pyongyang and managed to talk with her husband and daughter, who had not seen her for four years. This video and Kim’s response are available online. Her relatives did not brand her as a traitor, but instead, displayed the usual reaction that people who have been separated and missing their loved one for a long time usually show. Nor did they start saying that she had gone missing in China in order to hide the fact that she had escaped. Actually, it is also of note that that after the news of Kim’s escape had broken out, her father and daughter were not punished.
Kim misses her father and daughter, and lives in Daegu, where she works at the waste processing plant as an operator, and periodically undergoes medical examinations, all the while continuing to try and return home. On March 7, 2016, Kim tried to get political asylum at the Vietnamese Embassy ( ). Two hours later, the police brought her back.
At one particular press conference, Kim said: All this freedom, wealth and other temptations of local life mean nothing compared to my family and home that I left back in the North. I want to return to my family, even if I get there and die of starvation.” “Most of all, I would like all of North Korea to understand that I am not and was never a traitor, and I never forgot about the motherland for even a moment.”
What does the author think about this? Well, we have a woman who can’t be described as particularly smart, who was attracted by false promises by a broker and ended up remaining in the South against her will. What prevented the South Korean authorities from bringing her back home immediately, thereby demonstrating their generosity and willingness not to use human error for propaganda?
This would have been a beautiful and important step: see, some other countries have started to turn the story around into a story about choosing freedom and completely disregard and destroy a person’s life because of modern-day propaganda. But we live in a democratic country, and respect human free choice, even if someone wants to “go back into the darkness.” We do not agree with that choice, but we cannot prevent it – this is the essence of freedom. After all, the South periodically returns fishermen to the North who, because of a storm or navigational error, end up stranded in South Korean waters. Some of these fishermen choose to stay, but quite often, people say “no” to the offer to stay and they are returned back to the North. The most recent story of this kind occurred just recently, on June 8, 2016
A North Korean fishing vessel crossed the Northern border line in the Eastern Sea, but when it became clear that the fishermen had simply sailed off course and expressed their desire to return to the North, they were ushered into North Korean territory that very day.
How is this situation fundamentally different?
Of course, the fate of Kim, who is seeking to return home, is rather an exception to the rule, although it is not the only example of how the people who spend time in the South for one reason or another begin to seek ways to get back to the North. In spite of a much better standard of living, material well-being, as it turns out, can’t be used as a measure of absolutely everything. Not everyone can manage to get by with “second class” citizen status. Generally speaking, the average South Korean can suffer irreparable damage to his reputation if ever he admitted to being married to a Northerner.
So we would like to see Kim Ryon-hui’s story with a happy ending. We wish this woman with a tragic fate success in finally reuniting with her loving family that has been waiting for her for a long time, and that the South Korean government displays wisdom and prudence.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History, Chief Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”