[Interview] Shattering the myth that all N. Koreans want to defect to S. Korea

Posted on : 2021-02-04 17:08 KST Modified on : 2021-02-05 16:55 KST
Author and producer Cho Cheon-hyeon has spent past 2 decades researching defectors
Cho Cheon-hyeon, author of “Defector.” (Kim Bo-geun)
Cho Cheon-hyeon, author of “Defector.” (Kim Bo-geun)

“The only way for North Korean defectors to survive is by shattering the myth that all defectors want to come to South Korea.”

This is how independent producer Cho Cheon-hyeon, 55, summarized the theme of his book “Defector” (Bori Books), an account of more than 30 years spent researching North Korean defectors.

Cho’s claim comes across as somehow strange. Does he mean to say there are also defectors who don’t want to come to the South? Most South Korean media and publications tell the stories of people risking their lives to defect — falling prey to human trafficking or forced repatriation by China — before dramatically arriving on South Korean soil.

But based on his own surveys, Cho explains that those hoping to come to the South represent just one group among defectors. In fact, the combined number of those seeking to stay in China and those wanting to return to the North is actually greater than those hoping to reach South Korea, he says. “Defector” includes accounts representing all three type of defectors. It’s for this reason that its subtitle reads “North Korean defectors you won’t see anywhere else.” Cho spoke to the Hankyoreh on Jan. 22 at his office in Seoul’s Mapo District.

Since 1997, Cho has met with North Korean defectors primarily in China’s Yanbian prefecture and the North Korean-Chinese border region. Other than last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible to visit China, he has met with defectors virtually every year for the past two decades or so. Based on his meetings, they presented quite a different image from the one commonly perceived in South Korea, he said.

For example, Cho administered a survey to 100 female North Korean defectors whom he had met with three or more times between August 2001 and October 2003. Forty-one of them said they wanted to travel to the South, while the other 59 did not: 34 wanted to return to North Korea, 21 hoped to remain in China, and four wanted none of the above. Indeed, Kim Ryon-hui, the so-called “Pyongyangite in Daegu,” has demanded repatriation ever since she arrived in the South in 2011, insisting that she only came because she had been “deceived by a broker.”

Many want to return to N. Korea after earning money

Chang Kyong-chol (pseudonym) is a native of Hamhung, South Hamgyong Province, whom Cho met in 2004, three years after his defection. Chang also had no desire to go to the South.

“There’s a defector I know who went to the South six months ago. I don’t envy him at all,” Chang said.

“My father starved to death and my mother is sick. I came to China as the oldest son so that I could help her,” he explained. “How could I leave my mother and younger siblings behind and go live the good life on my own in South Korea?”

According to Cho, many of the defectors he met bristled at the word “defector” itself. Lee Sung-hwan (pseudonym), one of the defectors who hoped to return to the North, is quoted as saying, “I hate being called a ‘defector.’ I didn’t leave because I’m opposed to the politics in North Korea. I’m just someone who left to earn money, and I plan to return once I’ve made some.”

Pak Kyong-hwa (pseudonym) is a native of Onsong, North Hamgyong Province, whom Cho met in the Chinese city of Yanji in 2014. “If it’s someone who left after committing a crime, someone who’ll be punished if they go back, you’ll never hear them talk about going back to North Korea. But people like us just quickly earn money and go back,” she explained. Similarly, many of the other defectors Cho interviewed dreamed of going back home with the money they earned. The remarks call to mind the Koreans who headed to the US in search of the “American dream” in the 1970s, or the ethnic Koreans from China who arrived in the 1990s to pursue the “Korean dream.”

Cho also quoted Kim Yong-mi (pseudonym), then 33, from Saebyol (now Kyongwon), North Hamgyong, as saying it was “better to live well in China than to live poorly in South Korea” when he met her in the Chinese city of Hunchun in 2005. Kim was married to a Korean-Chinese husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son. At the time, Kim’s husband had traveled to South Korea to earn money, and she used the money he sent over to acquire Chinese citizenship papers.

Politicization of defections intensifies N. Korean-Chinese border controls

“Certain brokers, NGOs and missionary groups have been orchestrating and expanding North Korean defections to South Korea for political purposes. And as certain far-right and conservative media in South Korea and Japan have either parroted the things they say or actively orchestrated things themselves, things have really crossed the line,” Cho said.

The primary victims of actions like these are the defectors themselves. Orchestrated defections lead to intensified controls on the North Korean-Chinese border, leaving far fewer options available to those who seek to remain in China or return to the North.

Some defectors, NGOs and missionary groups have also taken advantage of this “defector myth” to perpetrate fraud. As a representative example, Cho mentioned the Yerang Mission incident, which the Supreme Court declared a case of fraud in 2008. Beginning in the early 2000s, the mission appropriated over 2 billion won (US$1.8 million) in donations raised through internet posts about “risking death to evangelize in North Korea” and the “martyrdom and defections of North Koreans.” In 2006, the church was tried amid accusations by congregation members, and most of the messages it posted were found to have been false.

In Cho’s view, it is the people of South and North Korea alike who end up victimized by the “defector myth” and the political activities that exploit it. Many of the activities related to that mythmaking end up being used to demonize North Korea.

“If defectors do want to come to South Korea, the best way is for them to do it as quietly as possible,” he said.

“The more South Korea and the international community get involved in defector issues with their own political agenda, the more likely it is to end up further cementing our national division,” he warned.

By Kim Bo-geun, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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