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ConflictsSouth Korea

North Koreans worry about being sent back

July 29, 2022

A case of two men who escaped North Korea only to be secretly sent back by South Korean authorities continues to worry would-be defectors to the South.

A North Korean fishing boat
Two fishermen were found on a boat (not pictured) and accused of murdering the crew in a bid to escape North KoreaImage: Japan Coast Guard/AP/picture alliance

Recently inaugurated South Korean PresidentYoon Suk-yeol is requesting an investigation into the 2019 case of two North Korean defectors who were allegedly sent back without due process.

North Korean refugees who have made the perilous journey to the South say the case is widely known in the North and could dissuade future would-be defectors. 

Video footage released in July shows the men struggling as they are forced toward the border at Panmunjom, with one man throwing himself to the floor. 

"I cried when I saw on the news the images of the two men being handed back to North Korea," Yuna Jung, who defected in 2006 and today lives in Seoul with her family, told DW. "Those two men knew at that moment that they were going to die," she said.

Two North Korean fishermen accused of murder

The incident occurred in November 2019, when South Korean naval units monitored a North Korean squid-fishing boat as it crossed into the South's territorial waters off the east coast of the peninsula.

After tracking the vessel for two days, South Korean forces stopped the boat and brought two men ashore.

The former South Korean government of President Moon Jae-in soon announced that the two men had killed the 15 other members of the crew and thrown their bodies overboard, and were fleeing justice in the North.  

Five days after they had first set foot in the South, the men were secretly handed over to North Korean officials.

There was concern at the time about the haste with which the two men were sent back to the North.

Critics accused Moon — a well-known human rights lawyer before he became president — of attempting to curry favor with the North for his own political agenda and for failing to legally protect the defectors' human rights.

That criticism has snowballed since the recent release of the video footage.

The defector community in South Korea is angry at reports that much of the documentation and evidence in the case was destroyed by the outgoing administration earlier in the year, which will complicate the investigation. 

North Korean defectors discouraged

NK News, a Seoul-based dissident media organization, has reported that the footage has elicited "shock and outrage" in the North that the South Korean government forcibly repatriated the two men, despite being aware that they would likely be executed.  

Citing a source in the North contacted by mobile phone, NK News reported that would-be defectors are now "reconsidering their plans."

"We do not know what they did in the North and we cannot trust what Pyongyang says, but, even if they were murderers, then they should have been put on trial in the South," Jung said.

"They said they wanted to stay here, so it was against their human rights and the South's constitution to send them back," she added.

The former defector believes that many people in the North think the South Korean government would accept them and help them. "To see defectors being forced to go back is shocking," Jung said.

Escaping North Korea becoming more difficult

Jung, 33, said escaping from the North had become far more difficult in recent years.

Traveling in a group of 11, Jung was able to cross the border into China undetected.

She avoided patrols, and the likelihood of being returned to North Korea, before entering Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, from where she flew to South Korea. The entire journey took four months.  

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"It's harder for several reasons now," Jung said.

"The government has blocked all the borders because of the coronavirus, and they are now building a new wall on the Chinese border to stop defectors," she said. "The cost of escaping has also risen, with brokers now charging $100,000 (€98,393) per person because the risks are so high."

"Even after you cross the river," Jung said, "you are not really safe as the Chinese police are always trying to catch defectors and send them back."

"With all the changes, it has effectively become mission impossible now," she said.

Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy for Liberty in North Korea, an NGO,told DW that there has been a sharp decrease in the number of defectors reaching the South.

Government statistics indicate that there were 1,047 arrivals in 2019, which was the lowest annual figure since the turn of the century. In 2020, that total fell to 229 defectors and just 63 completed the journey in 2021.  

In the first six months of 2022, there have been 19 arrivals, and the annual total is likely to be around 40 individuals, Park said.

"The numbers have just fallen off a cliff," Park said. "We are hearing that it is now almost as difficult to cross the border into China as it is to cross the Demilitarized Zone between North and South. The Chinese border is being heavily fortified and that work is also being accelerated," he added.

Because of coronavirus restrictions in China, it is also far more difficult for defectors to travel through the country en route for a safe third country, Park said.

Defectors who are presently in China are opting to sit tight because it is so difficult to move and hoping that travel eventually becomes easier, he added.  

Park also believes that the case of the two fishermen will make more would-be defectors think again.  

"The pictures are out there now, the controversy in South Korea is huge, and none of this is going to be helpful for defectors or potential defectors," he said.  

Edited by: Wesley Rahn

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea