Double Defectors: Signifiers of Pyongyang’s Strategic Shift

By | December 06, 2012 | No Comments

Re-defectors to the DPRK  Kim Kwang-hyeok and Ko Jeong-nam at a Pyongyang Press Conference, Nov. 8, 2012. Image via

Re-defectors to the DPRK, Kim Kwang-hyok and Koh Jong-nam, at a Pyongyang press conference on Nov. 8, 2012 | Image via

December 2012 is set to drag a veritable cornucopia of events kicking and screaming into the limelight, each and every one literally begging to be analyzed as it happens. However, before anyone starts talking about rockets, the tear-drenched commemoration of the death of a Kim, the New Year’s Joint Editorial or even, looming on the horizon like a virtual colossus, the January 8 birthday of “respected comrade Kim Jong-un,” one needs to look back at an issue that hit the headlines earlier this year: the mysterious world of double defectors. Are these people mostly spies, returning to North Korea at the instruction of the KWP to offer the international media a false endorsement of the society being built by the new Kim before our very eyes? Or are they genuine defectors, heading back to the bosom of the motherland to escape the poverty and discrimination that is said to beset a surprising number of North Koreans attempting to settle in South Korea? In the first of a SinoNK triple-header, Brian Gleason investigates. – Christopher Green, Assistant Editor

Double Defectors: Signifiers of Pyongyang’s Strategic Shift

by  Brian Gleason

In the aftermath of Kim Jong-il’s death, Kim Jong-un made it clear that deterring and punishing North Korean defectors was high on his list of priorities. Almost immediately, his regime is said to have dispatched 20,000 additional soldiers along the border to tighten security, transferred full border control authority to the National Security Agency (which had previously shared it with the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces), reinforced the guilt-by-association system that endeavors to flip the cost-benefit analysis of “treason” by incarcerating three generations of a criminal’s family, and may even have ordered would-be defectors to be shot on site. Although the South Korean Ministry of Unification still expects the total number of North Korean refugees to exceed 25,000 by the end of the year, these efforts have thus far paid off; from January-October 2012, only 1,202 North Korean refugees arrived in South Korea, representing a sharp decrease from the previous five-year average of 2,678 annually.

On another front in the battle for control, the Supreme Leader and his propaganda team are striving to bring back North Korean refugees from the South to utilize them in highly publicized “double defections.” These  serve as valuable anti-South propaganda tools and cautionary tales for any North Korean “foolish” enough to think about defecting. Until this year, the only highly publicized double defection had been that of Yoo Tae-joon back in 2000, although the Ministry of Unification has acknowledged that other North Korean defectors have also returned. Thus, the sudden and very public return of four double defectors in 2012 – grandmother Pak Jong-suk on June 28 and Kim Kwang-hyok, his wife and child on November 8 – signifies a strategic shift in how Pyongyang deals with the “defector problem” and its legitimacy battle with the South. Instead of trying to hide the defector issue from the North Korean public and vowing to severely punish anyone who defects to the South, the Kim Jong-un regime is now actively pursuing double defectors, purportedly welcoming them back with open arms while simultaneously using them to criticize the South and discourage other would-be refugees from crossing the Tumen River.

The number of North Korean refugees in the South has fallen dramatically in 2012 (although not as dramatically as this image claims) | Image via Daily Kos

The number of North Korean refugees in the South has fallen dramatically in 2012, although not quite as dramatically as the graphic claims. | Image via Daily Kos

Stop the Bus: Catalysts for Pyongyang’s Strategic Shift | In 2012, several defections from the North Korean security-defense apparatus, including two separate murder-defection incidents, became sources of serious concern for the regime. The first notable defections followed April 23 murders in Hyesan, which sparked a manhunt leading members of North Korea’s 10th Corps, which is responsible for security in the Yangkang Province region, across the border into China.[1] After a North Korean soldier defected in August, two more followed in separate incidents in October, including the double murder-defection of a 17-year-old elite conscript on October 17. The young man reportedly saw “no hope” in the North after learning of the huge gap between the two Koreas while working as a frontline guard near the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

In the wake of this defection, news of which reportedly traveled north to Pyongyang in a proverbial heartbeat, it is important to note the date of the most recent re-defection and the timing of the press conference. Even though KCNA reported that Kim Kwang-hyok and his wife Koh Jong-nam returned to North Korea on September 12, the press conference did not occur until November 8. Evidently, Pyongyang was waiting for a politically perspicacious moment to roll out the couple and their child. The murder-defection in mid-October may have been the catalyst, leading Pyongyang to counter with the press conference in early November.

Although many North Korean soldiers have defected down the years, the defections in 2012 have further elevated concerns about decaying morale within the North Korean ranks, and highlighted the risks of “unwanted” information spreading among the people.

In this regard, another driver of Pyongyang’s strategic decision to heavily publicize double defections is the North’s increasing permeability to outside information. A May 2012 report by InterMedia confirmed what many already knew; that significant shifts in North Korea’s media landscape are happening, as “growing access to a range of media and communication technologies is undermining the state’s monopoly on what its citizens see, hear, know and think.” Pyongyang thus faces the daunting task of attempting to prevent, refute, criticize or manipulate a burgeoning array of information and other media spreading throughout the North Korean populace that can potentially inspire defections or delegitimize the regime. Some communications technologies, like cell phones, are even being officially encouraged. At the same time, a variety of troubling developments in 2012 –  an upsurge in food prices and unemployment, chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and raw materials, the diffusion of popular South Korean dramas and pop music, the increasing publicity of North Korean defectors in the South,[2] the aforementioned murders and defections, the April 2012 rocket launch failure[3] and the overall dismal state of the North Korean economy – have all been sources of great concern for the new regime.

Pyongyang is a masterful manipulator of hearts and minds, and is attempting multiple  solutions to these mounting challenges. One is in the form of double defector press conferences; their goal being to emphasize that no matter how bad it gets in the North, or how appealing life in the South may seem, the life of a North Korean defector in the South will not resemble a glamorous South Korean drama; North Koreans will be “cleaning dirty toilets, washing dishes [and] serving the elderly – which south Korean people never do,” according to double defector Pak Jong-suk’s testimony. “I didn’t have any specific jobs, doing only volunteer work or manual labor, paid with lower salaries,” she said. Notice the latest shift in Pyongyang’s portrayal of life in the South. Instead of attempting to refute the opulent lifestyles depicted in South Korean dramas (which North Koreans may increasingly believe as they watch more and more of them), part of the North’s new strategy is to utilize double defectors like Pak to accentuate class division between wealthier South Koreans (who may be capable of living such lives) and the underclass of North Korean defectors (who are not). Thus, even though the South may be relatively wealthier, they admit, the North Koreans living there are relatively poorer (and more miserable) than they were in the motherland.

According to re-defectors, Kim Jong Un and Ri Sol Ju's (left) appearance at a Pyongyang family's home in early September was the psychological catalyst for their return. | Photo via CCTV

According to the re-defector press conference pictured above, Kim Jong-un and Ri Sol-ju’s (left) beneficient appearance at a Pyongyang family’s home in early September was the psychological catalyst for their return. | Photo via CCTV

Treachery and Luring: Motives for the Double Defections | In each of the highly publicized re-defection press conferences this year, the returning North Koreans conveyed very similar scenarios for their defections to the South and their decisions to subsequently return to the North: treacherous South Korean intelligence agents lured them to defect via subterfuge and manipulation (Pak Jong-suk claimed she was actually drugged), they endured a miserable life within the South’s capitalist system, they longed to return to life in the North, and ultimately the Supreme Leader generously welcomed them back home despite their betrayal.

Conversely, several reports have alleged that the double defectors were either coerced to return to the North via threats or lured back by North Korean agents. After conducting interviews with South Korean government officials and Pak Jong-suk’s friends living in the South, the Washington Post reported that Pak’s statements during her redefection press conference in the North were “largely false and probably state-fed, and it exposes North Korea’s willingness to manipulate a citizen who returned not because she yearned for her homeland but because she feared for the safety of the son she left behind.” North Korea’s National Security Agency seems to be at the coal face of a policy of luring defectors back to the North. Quoting a confidential source, Daily NK reported that Kim Kwang-hyok and Koh Jong-nam were lured back to the North by Musan NSA. The source explained that the NSA’s strategy is to target defection brokers, since they often relay information between North Korean refugees in the South and their friends and acquaintances inside the North. The NSA utilizes the information to pinpoint the location of the North Koreans in the South, and then attempts to “use a mixture of conciliatory words and threats of violence to get the family to try and lure the defectors back.”

DPRK comics glorify the undercover agent -- who just might also be a grandmother. | Image from collection of Adam Cathcart

DPRK comics glorify the undercover agent — who just might also be a grandmother. | Image from collection of Adam Cathcart

In addition to the NSA’s apparent strategy, it is widely believed that some of these double defectors may have been North Korean spies. Indeed, a source from Hoiryeong in North Hamkyung told Daily NK that double defector Koh Jong-nam was actually a National Security Agency operative who entered South Korea in 2008 on the orders of the organization, married her husband Kim in 2009, then returned with him in 2012. Allegedly, NSA operatives similar to Koh work with ethnic Koreans in China to obtain information about North Korean refugees and attempt to lure them back. Successful, and thus demonstrably loyal, ones are then sent to South Korea for further espionage activities. A second source in the same article corroborated Koh Jong-nam’s status as an NSA operative, stating that she had “little choice but to comply with the NSA’s demands” and that she was recalled by the NSA this year because she had lost her value as an agent due to her pregnancy.

It Ain’t Like the Movies: North Koreans are Struggling in the South | There is some truth to the portrayal of the hard life for North Koreans in the South. Despite efforts by the South Korean government to help North Koreans succeed in school – including scholarships, stipends, government paid housing and free university tuition – North Koreans’ university dropout rates are disproportionately high, and other North Korean students struggle with bullying, an education gap with South Korean students and emotional problems caused by depression, anger and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

The South Korean government also endeavors to help North Koreans attain employment by offering job training and providing subsidies to companies that hire North Koreans, but many North Korean refugees have difficulty finding employment beyond low-level, low-paying jobs, and they can also experience prejudice in the workplace. Furthermore, some North Koreans endure economic hardship in the South after they are tricked or scammed financially, and according to the Korean Institute of Criminology, the crime rate for North Korean refugees in the South between 1998-2007 was over 10%, more than double the 4.3% national average. Various NGOs, charities, church groups and other organizations continue to support North Koreans in a variety of ways, but defectors still need more assistance to overcome the wide array of challenges they face.

“Thinly Concealed Disgust”: Conclusion | Although the North Korean government has ramped up its efforts to portray a life of hardship for North Koreans in the South, there’s ample evidence that “life has not improved since Kim Jong-un.” Four North Koreans on government-sanctioned stays in Dandong told the New York Times that “their lives have gotten harder, despite Mr. Kim’s tantalizing pronouncements about boosting people’s livelihoods.” The interviewees underscored a growing sense of disillusionment and cynicism within the North Korean populace, and most notably, “a thinly concealed disgust over inequality that has risen in recent years.” They went on to describe a situation in which “Emaciated beggars haunt train stations, while well-connected businessmen continue to grow rich from trading with China and government officials flourish by collecting fines and bribes.” Accordingly, it appears that the North Korean regime is attempting to counter this growing sense of inequality within the disenchanted underclass of its purportedly socialist system by emphasizing how North Koreans suffer from inequality and class division in the South. The effectiveness of this strategy remains to be seen, but as more and more information seeps into North Korea, Kim Jong-un’s regime will have to continue developing new ways of convincing the people of the North’s supremacy over the South.

[1] The two men responsible for the murders were border security agents working for the Hyesan City Defense Security Command. Although they attempted to escape, they were caught in China and repatriated on April 27.
[2] For example, a South Korean variety show called “Now on My Way to Meet You” featured numerous female North Korean refugees living in the South. Overall, an increasing number of North Korean refugees are being featured in books, newspaper articles, documentaries, radio and television shows, which all have the potential to impact the North Korean people by demonstrating that life outside of North Korea is quite different from the way it is portrayed by the North’s propagandists.
[3] The North Korean government’s decision to publicly admit the failure to the North Korean people reinforces the notion that the regime is increasingly unable to prevent the truth from reaching the populace.

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  1. It would be interesting to know what factors other than control may influence “defection” rates from North Korea. An age pyramid of 2005 shows a bulge in the lower adulthood ranges, and smaller numbers among children less than ten years old. Estimated population growth rate in 2012: 0.535 percent. By comparison, it should be 0.204 in the South (according to the same source), and 0.481 in China, and 1.469 in Mongolia. I’d imagine that age matters in a decision to take the enormous risks and to flee the country.

    And maybe propaganda has had some of the desired effect on the public – in the short run, anyway. People may have expected (or still expect) improvement from the “generational change” at the top.

    But propaganda – no matter how skillful – can’t replace a reasonable policy. My guess: the defection numbers are going to rise again, within two years – maybe not to previous levels, but markedly. Unless life improves, that is.

    Btw, Kim Kwang-hyok’s Up-With-People gesture on the press conference looked bizarre. Or was he rehearsing for the Arriang Mass Games?

  2. Regarding the decreasing number of defectors entering the South, here are two other possible factors: a combination of NKorea deterring possible defectors through emphasizing the harsh conditions they will encounter in SKorea (perhaps not so surprising); but also, the grapevine of communities in China passing on the same message – that life for defectors is difficult in SKorea.

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