Overwhelmed by Guilt: Pyongyang’s Evolving “Double Defector” Propaganda

By | May 25, 2013 | No Comments

via Rodong Sinmun, May 18, 2013

Double defectors atoning for their “sins.” | Image: Rodong Sinmun, May 18, 2013

At a recent conference hosted by the Seoul-based North Korea Strategy Center (북한전략센터) entitled “North Koreans’ Contact with Outside Information and Changes in Human Rights Consciousness” [북한 주민들의 외부정보 접촉실태와 인권의식 변화], a panel of defectors and North Korean specialists spoke on the effects that the increase in flow of outside information is having on North Korean society. All panelists agreed that an increasing number of North Koreans are able to learn more about the world through foreign media sources, including TV shows, dramas, radio broadcasts, and DVDs. They also agreed that the influx of outside information into the country is significant impacting daily life: everything from fashion styles to perceptions of South Korea is changing. Others agree.

The InterMedia report published last year on the changing media environment in North Korea came to similar conclusions. The report found that the North Korean government no longer maintains a total monopoly over the information available to the population and, as a result, North Koreans’ understanding of the world is changing. Not covered in the report or at the conference though is that the North Korean regime’s propaganda strategy is also changing. Instances of double defections are being slyly used by the regime for propagandistic effect. Brian Gleason, writing from Seoul, tells of “Pyongyang’s Evolving ‘Double Defector’ Propaganda” in part one of a two part series. – Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Overwhelmed by Guilt: Pyongyang’s Evolving “Double Defector” Propaganda 

by Brian Gleason

In the past year, the sharp increase in the number of double defector press conferences is clearly an indication of Pyongyang’s strategy to thwart nefarious outside influences and create a “defector deterrent” via an evolving narrative about the horrible life in the South for a North Korean refugee.

After analyzing the 2012 redefections of Pak Jong-suk on June 28 and Kim Kwang-hyok, his wife and child on November 8, I wrote about North Korea’s strategic shift in attempting to stem the tide of North Korean refugees escaping to South Korea. In addition to Kim Jong-un’s orders to beef up border security and intensify the punishments inflicted on those trying to escape, Pyongyang’s propagandists also began to utilize highly publicized double defections to warn North Koreans that they would merely become part of a North Korean refugee underclass in the South, doing “…humble work, cleaning dirty toilets, washing dishes, serving the elderlywhich Southern people never do,” according to Pak Jong-suk’s testimony.

This kind of anti-South propaganda represented a significant shift in Pyongyang’s strategy; in the past, the regime always told its people that the centrally planned North Korean economy was superior to the South Korean economic system, which was actually true (in terms of GNP) until 1976, when the South surpassed the North for good. Pyongyang continued to leverage “friendship prices” and other aid from its Soviet and Chinese alliesas well as its iron grip on people and information flowing into or out of the countryin order to maintain the myth of North Korea’s superiority.

However, since the “North Koreans’ 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,” the regime can no longer perpetuate the myth of Northern superiority. Experts like Andrei Lankov have also highlighted Pyongyang’s need for a new line of propaganda, stating, “[T]hanks to Choco Pies, DVDs and large-scale labour migration to China, people don’t buy the old story [that the South is even poorer] and the government does not sell it any more.” Thus, in the Kim Jong-un era, Pyongyang has not only developed new forms of propaganda[1]like the double defector press conferencesit has also crafted new messages and themes to persuade an increasingly skeptical populace and warn against meddlesome outside influences.

Echoes of the 2012 Redefection Press Conferences | In 2013, several additional redefections have reaffirmed Pyongyang’s commitment to its new strategy. In late January at the People’s Palace, Kim Kwang-ho, Ko Kyung-hee and other redefectors gave testimonials that reinforced some familiar themes emphasized in the 2012 press conferences: Kim Kwang-ho alleged that he and his wife were forcibly taken to the South, while Ko Kyung-hee described South Korean society as deceptive (even Machiavellian) and claimed that due to her status as a North Korean defector, she was unable to find employment. Not long after their regrettable decision to defect to the South, they longed to return to the North and were fortunately welcomed back due to the generosity of the Supreme Leader.[2]

In each press conference, the North not only welcomes back the defectors with open arms (thanks to the generosity of Kim Jong-un), it also provides other North Korean refugees in the South with concrete reassurances of why the North will not punish them. North Korean defectors are portrayed not only as victims of South Korean deception, but also as mere mortals who can understandably make stupid mistakes from time to time. Kim Kwang-ho and Kim Ok-shil merely had a “silly/stupid” (어리석은) idea about becoming rich in the South, which of course ended in utter failure. Similarly, Pak Jong-suk was simply pursuing an ill-fated and “foolish idea to meet with my father in the South and ask him for money.” Thus, according to the North’s sympathetic interpretation, these North Korean defectors weren’t inherently treacherous; they merely had a “ foolish” lapse in judgment that led them to fall into the South’s treacherous trap.[3]

In this context, the regime is not only warning its people against making any similarly foolish or silly decisions, it is also extending an olive branch to other North Korean refugees who may be contemplating a return to North Korea by literally offering them rationalizations for defecting that can subsequently be forgiven by the Supreme Leader.[4] With conspicuous parallels to the biblical story of Adam and Eve, the North Korean defectors have sinned not only because they are mortals, but also because they have been deluded by a nefarious force; ultimately, they can only be forgiven and redeemed if they return to the Supreme Leader to beg for forgiveness.

Divided Families, Guilty Consciences | Just as in the 2012 redefections, the January 2013 press conference also aimed to exploit the guilt and emotional hardships that many North Korean refugees experience by leaving their families and hometowns behind. The guilt is multifaceted, since many North Korean refugees often feel guilty for leaving family and friends behind, enjoying a better standard of living in the South[5] and jeopardizing the safety and status of family members back in North Korea.[6]

Pak Jong-suk’s 2012 testimony is especially relevant here, since although her foolish and selfish decision separated her from her family and destroyed her son’s career, “My son is now able to continue teaching at the college [where he used to work],” and Kim Jong-un has graciously allowed her to live with her son and daughter-in-law in Pyongyang. Building on Pak’s sentiments, Kim Kwang-ho and Kim Ok-shil testified in January 2013 that they were worried about their child’s life, so they decided to go back to North Korea after hearing Pak Jong-suk’s press conference. Ko Kyung-hee said she “longed for my children [that I left behind in the North], and yearned for the embrace of my homeland.” These kinds of statements are obviously intended to exploit the guilt felt by many North Korean refugees, who could conceivably become so overwhelmed by guilt and emotion that they would risk returning to the North.

Tug of War: Pulling the “Chain” Northward  |  In Park Kyung-ae’s detailed, multifaceted analysis of North Korean refugee issues, she highlights the increasing rates of “chain” defections in the 21st century:

Another noteworthy trend is the increase of the so-called “ chain” defection. Unlike in the 1990s, many refugees today stay in touch with their families back home or in China and pave the way for their exit for smugglers or brokers, who charge the refugees for facilitating passage of the family members… .Those who arrived in South Korea as chain refugees accounted for 20% of the total refugee population as of 2004.[7]

Throughout the rest of the Kim Jong-il era, the growing flood of North Korean refugees in the South only served to heighten fears in the North about an increasing number of chain defections. In the Kim Jong-un era, the North has been making concrete efforts to break or reverse these chains, especially by targeting defection brokers, threatening the families of North Korean refugees, and through propaganda in the double defector press conferences. Pak Jong-suk, Ko Kyung-hee, Kim Kwang-ho and Kim Ok-shil were all “pulled” back by considerations and concerns for their family members, which represents a reversal of the southward pull of the chain defections noted above. Ko Jong-nam is a case in point, since she reportedly went back to the Sino–North Korean border to bring her children to South Korea, but may have been captured and turned by a North Korean agent, which subsequently led her to bring her husband out of the South and back to the DPRK. As North Korean agents continue to collect information on defection brokers and North Korean refugees, the tug-of-war over chain defectors is tragically likely to continue.

Further Readings

Brian Gleason, “Double Defectors: Signifiers of Pyongyang’s Strategic Shift,” Sino-NK, December 6, 2012.

Gianluca Spezza, “What Double-Defection Tells us About the Prospects For Korean Unification,” NK News, August 9, 2012.


[1] There was one other highly publicized redefector press conference in 2000, but the strategic objectives and frequency of the press conferences after the death of Kim Jong-il does signal a new era.

[2] In the highly publicized re-defection press conferences in 2012, the returning North Koreans conveyed very similar scenarios for their defections to the South and their decisions to subsequently return to the North.

[3] Another important part of her testimony was that her father didn’t even leave her a will, so her plan in South Korea was not only portrayed as foolish, but also as an utter failure. This can also be interpreted as a terrible example of a father tainted by the capitalist South could be so greedy as to not leave his daughter a will.

[4]   Many North Korean refugees have said that they can never trust the North Korean authorities again, but a few have stated in private conversations that due to the emotional turmoil of being separated from their family and friends, they might eventually be willing to take the risk of returning. They figure that they can sneak back in undetected or lie to the authorities by claiming that they only went to China to earn money, wherein they believe the authorities will grant them leniency.

[5] This kind of guilt is sometimes manifested by the large remittances sent by North Korean refugees to their families. Although most North Korean refugees have a low to medium level of income in the South, some have acknowledged that they send a disproportionate amount of their savings to family members in the North, mostly for financial support, but sometimes to assuage their own guilt.

[6] In 2012, Kim Jong-un also reinforced the guilt-by-association system that endeavors to flip the cost-benefit analysis of ”treason” by incarcerating three generations of a defector’s family.

[7] Kyung-Ae Park, “People’s Exit, Regime Stability and North Korean Foreign Policy,” Kyung-Ae Park, ed., New Challenges of North Korean Foreign Policy (New York: McMillan, 2010), 46.

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