Celebrity defector returns to North Korea, stars in propaganda video

North Korean Jeon Hye-sung, who defected to the South in January 2014 but returned in June 2017, appears in a propaganda video released by Pyongyang.

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Defector Jeon Hye-sung has reappeared in North Korea

Jeon said everyday in South Korea "was like living in hell"

Seoul CNN  — 

A North Korean defector known for her appearances on South Korean reality TV has returned to her former country and denounced the “propaganda” she once helped to produce.

In a video released by North Korean government website Uriminzokkiri Saturday, Jeon Hye-sung said she was told to “slander and speak ill” of North Korea during her time in the South.

Jeon defected to South Korea in January 2014, and is believed to have returned to North Korea last month. It’s unclear how she made her way back and under what circumstances. In the past, defectors have returned to the country under duress.

Jeon, who went by the name Lim Ji-hyun in South Korea, said she experienced “physical and psychological pain” while in Seoul and is now staying with her parents in Anju, in North Korea’s South Pyongan province.

She was a well-known face on South Korean TV shows starring defectors, appearing several times on reality show Moranbong Club, in which North Koreans drink and eat with the hosts and discuss their former country’s politics and culture.

North Korean Jeon Hye-sung appears on South Korean TV show Moranbong Club.

“I thought if I did well in the show, I would be able to star in films and gain popularity,” she said during the North Korean broadcast.

TV Chosun, which produces the shows Jeon appeared on, denied her accusations she was forced to take part. An official with South Korea’s Unification Ministry told CNN the authorities were investigating Jeon’s case.

Refuge and regret

The path to South Korea is often a harrowing one for North Korean defectors. During previous interviews with CNN, many defectors have recounted stories of dodging police, and working with criminal gangs to escape through China.

When they do make it to safety, defectors are screened by the South Korean authorities to make sure they’re not spies and then put into an intensive re-education program designed to help them integrate into South Korean society.

However, many defectors – who grew up in a society staggeringly different to the fast-moving, capitalist, celebrity-obsessed country they find themselves within – struggle to adapt and suffer feelings of despair and alienation.

Defector Timothy Kang told CNN last year many North Koreans blame themselves for failing to succeed in the South and – seeing the gaps between their own lives and those depicted in the country’s glitzy media – suffer from depression.

A survey of around 1,700 defectors in 2015 by the Hana Foundation found more than 20% had suicidal thoughts, three times higher than the South Korean average.

Casey Lartigue, international director of Seoul-based Teach North Korean Refugees, said that as well as cultural alienation, many North Koreans also struggle to catch up with their South Korean peers educationally and have a high drop out rate.

Return to the North

According to the Unification Ministry, citing figures quoted by the North Korean media, a total of 25 defectors have returned to the North since 2012. Of those, five have since re-defected to the South.

In the North Korean video, Jeon said she went to the South “led by fantasy that I could eat well and make lots of money” but instead found a country obsessed with wealth.

An Chan-il, head of the World North Korea Research Center, said he met Jeon several times and described her as a woman “dreaming of being a celebrity.”

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North Korean defectors struggle to fit in
02:18 - Source: CNN

Lartigue said that some defectors leave the South because life there is too difficult, while others return because they are blackmailed, or because they miss family or did not want to leave the country in the first place, having followed a relative or loved one.

“We should be slow about judging such a situation, where people leaving that country also meant leaving family members behind and with no prospects for ever returning,” Lartigue said.

An said returning defectors are considered highly valuable for propaganda purposes by Pyongyang, and may be treated generously.

“Some will be employed for official jobs,” he said. “Those who return with a considerable amount of money would also be considered for joining the Worker’s Party.”

For her part, Jeon said everyday in South Korea “was like living in hell,” adding her heart “ached with thoughts of the fatherland and my parents.”

“When I told people around me that I wanted to return home, they said groundlessly that I will be executed by firing squad,” she said. “But I wanted to return home and see my parents even if it meant death.”

CNN’s Roh Joo-ri contributed reporting.