He risked his life fleeing from one of the world’s most repressive regimes, traversing a militarized stretch protected by barbed wire fences. Then a year later, he went back – the way he came.
More than one month since the man crossed the demilitarized zone from South to North Korea, much of his life in both countries remains a mystery – as do his reasons for returning to the isolated nation ruled by Kim Jong Un.
South Korean media reported that the defector – who hasn’t been officially named, although fellow defectors say he was called Kim Woo-jeong in South Korea – was a former gymnast who largely kept to himself. According to South Korean police, he was a construction worker in his 30s who earned money by doing manual labor.
The man’s case is rare – while more than 10,000 North Korean defectors have arrived in South Korea in the past decade, just 30 have returned home, where they face the prospect of being put into forced labor camps, according to official South Korean data.
But defectors and advocates say even if the man’s rationale for leaving South Korea is unclear, the fact that some North Korean defectors are willing to return to one of the world’s most politically isolated countries only highlights how challenging life can be in the South for North Koreans.
Why people defect
Since the Korean War ended with an armistice in 1953, North and South Korea have been separated by an almost impenetrable border preventing anyone from crossing to the other side.
Over subsequent decades, South Korea has modernized, becoming one of the world’s richest and most technologically developed countries. Meanwhile, North Korea has become increasingly isolated, with citizens subject to widespread poverty and limited basic freedoms.
So it isn’t hard to see why people may want to escape.
Since 1998, more than 33,000 people have defected from North Korea to South Korea, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry. However, numbers have dwindled in recent years after Kim imposed even tougher border controls to prevent Covid inflows.
On very rare occasions, defectors – like the former gymnast – manage to escape through the heavily guarded demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. The vast majority, like defector Kang Chun-hyuk, flee over North Korea’s lengthy border with China.
Kang’s family made the trip in 1998 when he was 12 years old, before finally making it to South Korea a few years later.
In North Korea, Kang remembers barely having enough food to survive.
Sometimes, his family would make a single portion of dry noodles into a meal that would feed him and his parents for a week.
“It wasn’t worth going to school, so me and my classmates stole food like corn or potatoes,” he said.
According to a survey of 3,000 people released this year by the North Korean Refugees Foundation, food shortages are one of the most common motivations for defection, with nearly 22% saying that was why they had defected. The most common reason given – at 23% – was that people didn’t like being controlled or monitored by the North Korean regime.
Once they arrive in South Korea, there are measures in place to support them. Defectors undergo a compulsory, 12-week education session to help them adjust to life in their new home. They’re given financial support and accommodation, and access to health care and employment services.
But even so, life for defectors is often a struggle.
Finding work and fitting in
Before Kang Na-ra – no relation to Kang Chun-hyuk – defected in 2014 as a teenager, she thought her life in South Korea would mirror the K-dramas she watched in secret in the city of Chongjin.
But South Korea was a far cry from the romantic world she’d seen on screen.
Kang Na-ra’s mother defected before her – she does not want to say why – but their life together in South Korea was not what she’d hoped.
Her mother worked long hours and was often away from home dancing in a North Korean defectors performing group to make ends meet. Although Kang Na-ra spoke the same language, she was lonely and had few friends in South Korea.
Another defector, who asked not to be named or further identified for fear of repercussions for his family remaining in North Korea, said he also struggled with culture shock when he defected a few years ago – even bright and colorful signs and the abundance of English words used in language in South Korea made him feel uncomfortable.
“You don’t see things like that in North Korea,” said the defector. “I didn’t like many things in South Korea at first.”
He also said many defectors found it difficult to get a job.
Statistics for 2020 released last year by South Korea’s Unification Ministry found defectors had a higher unemployment rate than the general population, with 9.4% of defectors unemployed, compared with 4% of the general population in December 2020.
“Getting a good job is important, but even South Koreans who are raised and educated here find it difficult to get a decent job,” he said. “You can imagine how hard it can be for North Korean defectors.”
Kang Chun-hyuk’s family was given a flat by the government when they made it to South Korea in 2001 after three years in China. But his thick North Korean accent made it hard for him to fit in at school and he dropped out. He worked in manual labor until he was 25 years old, unsure if he would be able to ever do anything else.
For others, the struggle to adjust and find work can have deadly consequences. In 2019, North Korean defector Han Sang-ok was found dead in her apartment with her 6-year-old son after she failed to pay her bills for months.
A water meter inspector noticed a foul smell coming from the apartment and called the police, who found two heavily decomposed bodies and an empty fridge, leading the police officer to note starvation as the suspected cause of death.
But not all defectors have dreams of a bright life in South Korea.
Kim Ryon-hui is a rare case of a defector who arrived almost by accident.
The 54-year-old, who lived a relatively upscale life in North Korea, went to China in 2011 to visit relatives and seek medical care for liver disease. But when she arrived, she found Chinese doctors wanted payment upfront.
Kim said a broker told her Chinese people often went to South Korea to earn money. So, she signed up for a journey to South Korea and left her North Korean passport with the broker group – not realizing that meant she would never be able to return home.
Kim feels hostility from South Koreans, especially when North Korea’s leader fires missiles. She told CNN she struggled to adapt to a capitalist society governed by market pressures and to understand what she sees as a dog-eat-dog world.
“It’s like we’re oil and South Korea is water, so we can’t mix,” she said.
That’s a common sentiment for defectors. According to the North Korean Refugees Foundation survey, while most people are happy in South Korea because they can live a free life and earn relative to how much they work, many are unhappy with the level of intense competition.
But the hardest part for Kim is the separation from her family. South Korean law prevents any communication with people in North Korea and South Koreans cannot travel there. Unless Kim sneaks back into North Korea, or the two Koreas reach a peace agreement, she has little chance of seeing her family again.
Kim last saw her daughter when she was 17 – now her daughter is 28. Kim is only able to communicate with her family through journalists who take letters and gifts for her to North Korea, but that hasn’t been possible since North Korea closed its borders due to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.
“It’s scary to be alone,” she said. “When I see lights on in other apartments in the evening, I imagine families having dinner together. That’s the saddest and loneliest feeling.”
Why defectors return
Despite the difficulties of being in South Korea, the vast majority stay put. For most, that’s because the benefits of staying in South Korea are far greater than the risks they face if they return.
Seo Jae-pyeong, the director of the Association of the North Korean Defectors, defected in 2001. In the 20 years he’s lived in South Korea, he’s only known one defector personally who returned to North Korea.
She was a doctor with a family back in North Korea who didn’t realize her brother was bringing her to South Korea, he said.
“She didn’t have a reason to defect and she couldn’t get used to life in South Korea,” Seo said.
He questioned how many of the 30 defectors who returned to North Korea had left of their own free will. He said some may have been blackmailed or kidnapped near the border between China and North Korea.
Others might have had major financial difficulties that left them with few other choices.
Lee Na-kyung, a defector activist for single parents and people with disabilities from the North, said by the time many defectors arrive in South Korea they already have major debts to brokers who helped them cross the border.
Some defectors pay their government settlement money to the brokers, and then sink further into debt as they struggle to find work, according to Lee, who defected from North Korea in 2005 after her husband was framed for a crime she says he didn’t commit.
For some, the hardship of life in South Korea doesn’t meet their expectations. She knows of one man who was a high-ranking military officer in North Korea who could only find work in a junkyard in South Korea. “He said that he would rather die at home instead of dying as a junkman,” she said.
A month after the gymnast Kim crossed back into North Korea, it’s unclear whether he is still alive.
Although the South Korean military spotted him on surveillance footage crossing the barbed wires into the demilitarized zone, they failed to stop him, the South Korean military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Won In-choul said in a briefing in January.
He was seen four times on security camera on the south side of the border, and once after he crossed the Military Demarcation Line.
At one point, soldiers mistook him for a defector coming from the North. At another point, they went to find him. Later, they found no trace of him except a feather caught on a wire that they suspected had come from his puffer jacket.
There were “no unusual movements” of the North Korean military over the incident, South Korea’s Defense Ministry spokesman Boo Seung-chan said last month at another briefing.
And while North Korean state media has crowed about past defectors returning home, there has been no mention of last month’s defector in state news publications.
For those in South Korea, it’s a reminder that the country’s policies to help defectors could still be improved. Last week, the South Korean government announced it was launching a new team to improve the safety of defectors, noting that despite its current efforts, some defectors were still “experiencing difficulties settling into our society.”
But defector advocates were dubious about how effective those new steps would be, pointing out that support measures are in place – they just don’t work.
Even defectors who appear to have successfully made their transition sometimes struggle with the pull back to North Korea.
Two years after she defected, Kang Na-ra told her mother she wanted to go back. But she didn’t want to risk her life after going through so much to get to South Korea.
Now Kang, 25, is a television personality and YouTuber with more than 300,000 subscribers who watch her clips about life in North Korea. Her income is unstable, but at least she’s enjoying life.
“Still today, I wonder if I made the right decision,” she said. “Life here is tough.”
Saeeun Park and Seoyeon Youn contributed to this story from Seoul, South Korea.