On North Korean TV last month a middle-aged woman told viewers that she was happy to be back home in the North from South Korea, which she described as “a heartless society” full of "homeless people and violent crime.”
The woman, named Choi Kye-soon, told of having fled to South Korea in 2011 in what she now says was a misguided decision. Ms. Choi and another recently returned refugee wore brightly colored traditional Korean costumes and spoke with overstated emotion as they told viewers that South Korea is a selfish, overly competitive society where North Koreans are treated poorly.
There is no way of knowing if Choi really believes what she said in front of the camera on that day, but a few things are clear. Since early 2012 when Kim Jong-un took power in North Korea, significantly fewer North Koreans fleeing the country are making it to Seoul. Some who have escaped are returning, where instead of being persecuted some, like Choi, are put to use for domestic propaganda.
South Korean government data show that in 2012, the first year of Kim Jong-un’s rule, the number of refugees who arrived in Seoul dropped to 1,509, down more than 40 percent from the 2,706 who arrived in 2011. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, its body for relations with the North, recently announced that a similar number (1,516) arrived in 2013.
Around 25,000 North Koreans have settled in South Korea, most of whom flee through China to a third country where they are then taken to South Korea. For the regime in North Korea, keeping the population isolated from foreign sources of information is important and preventing defection is part of that strategy.
Under the rule of former leader Kim Jong-il – the current leader’s father – refugees were generally hidden from public view and depicted as traitors, but Kim Jong-un appears to be trying a different tactic. Reuters reported last August that North Korean families were being told by security agents that their relatives in the South would be welcomed back if they chose to return.
This type of endorsement by returned refugees like Choi who have experienced life in the South then chose to leave it contributes to an important propaganda goal for the regime, analysts say.
“The legitimacy of the Kim Jong-un regime depends on this impression of people wanting to live there, of it being more desirable than the South,” says Chris Green, manager of international affairs for Daily NK, an online media outlet with sources in North Korea.
But the Seoul-based human rights groups that work with and on behalf of North Korean refugees say that the testimonies of Ms. Choi and others like her generally aren’t convincing to the average North Korean.
“The people who see that on TV can tell that it’s a lie,” says Lee Young-seok, director of external relations for the NGO Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, who works with recent refugees and those living in Seoul who are in contact with their families in the North. “They just look at those people and say ‘Oh, at least it looks like they got to eat well while in the South.’ "
South Korea's Ministry of Unification says that only 13 refugees have ever gone back to North Korea, three of whom then later came back to the South. Returned defectors appeared on North Korean television five times last year, the most recent of which was on Dec. 20.
A tightened border is bad for business
Over the past two years, North Korea has reportedly stepped up security along the border with China. Along with preventing escapees, a key reason for the strengthened security is to shut down the country’s renegade entrepreneurs. Much of the commercial activity that takes place in North Korea relies on being able to traverse the border with China, acquiring goods then bringing them back for sale in North Korea.
Some North Koreans use money earned via illicit means to bring their standard of living up to a more tolerable level. North Korea’s socialist constitution guarantees basics like employment, food, and health care, but access to these ends is not uniform and hunger and poverty are believed to be widespread. A report released last August by the United Nations World Food Programme found that around 80 percent of North Koreans suffered food shortages in 2013.
But now with stricter security along the border, less back-and-forth traffic means less business and less ability for North Koreans to use their own initiative to fill holes in what the state provides them. A 2012 study by Seoul National University found that 70 percent of North Korean refugees interviewed had some kind of business experience, which is illegal in North Korea.
Professor Kim Byung-yeon, who led the study, says that traders with their own money and networks could pose a threat to the regime’s control and could create a more assertive middle class. “Being involved in business can affect North Korean people’s consciousness and markets may bring people out of the government’s control. If people start to earn money in the market, they can challenge the government’s power,” says Prof. Kim.
Observers say that defection inevitably acts as a vote of no confidence in the North Korean regime and undermines the propaganda that returned refugees like Ms. Choi are being used to create.
“Now more than ever before, North Koreans know they should question what their government tells them,” says Mr. Lee. “Defection itself is an expression of distrust in the regime, and it disproves the government’s false image of a population living happily under the general.”