Experts Explain Why North Korean Defector Returned Across Border

  • A former North Korean defector was observed last week going back across the border.
  • Insider spoke to experts who explained why the man risked possible punishment in returning to the North.
  • Experts said the man could have been a spy, or simply struggled with adjusting to life in South Korea.

A former North Korean defector who South Korean officials said crossed the border back to his home country last week may have been a spy, or else simply unhappy when confronted with the reality of life in the South, experts told Insider.

The South Korean defense ministry confirmed the crossing on Monday. Officials said the man, who is in his 30s, appeared to be the same person who defected from the North on the eastern side of the Demilitarized Zone in November 2020, according to Reuters.

More than 33,000 North Koreans have resettled in the South in the past two decades, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification. They flee a highly-regimented life in the North, where ordinary citizens face regular food shortages and practically no personal freedoms.

To make sense of why this former defector would want to return home, facing possible punishment and a more austere way of life, Insider spoke with experts who explained that North Koreans often have a hard time adjusting to life in the South. While re-crossings are rare, the experts said they have been known to happen.

With tensions still high between the two Koreas, which have never officially ended their 72-year-old long war, the experts noted it’s also possible that the man may have been a spy. However, a South Korean official told Reuters that the government doesn’t think that was the case in this incident.

A spy posing as a defector?

Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korean studies professor at Tufts University, laid out several reasons why the defector may have returned to the North, including economic hardships, threats to the defector’s family, trouble with the law in the South, and espionage.

While he said he can only speculate on the former defector’s intentions, the fact that the man had an unglamorous job as a cleaner “might be one source of frustration.”

That appears to line up with reports about what the man’s life was like in the South. A military official told Reuters that the man was “barely scraping a living.”

North korea life


People bow during a three minutes silence to pay their respects towards portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, to mark the ten year anniversary of the death of Kim Jong Il, the father of current leader Kim Jong Un, at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on December 17, 2021.

KIM WON JIN/AFP via Getty Images

In Lee’s view, that the defector only stuck it out in the South for 14 months also raises the possibility espionage.

“To go back to his homeland, where possible punishment awaited him, suggests that he could have been on a mission, he could have been a spy,” Lee said.

Annika A. Culver, associate professor of East Asian history at Florida State University, isn’t convinced that the defector was a spy.

“It doesn’t seem like he had the level of training or education to make the kind of intelligence observations that would be very useful to the North Korean regime,” Culver said.

The defector may have led a privileged life in the North

Culver believes a more likely scenario is that the defector may have lived a relatively cushy life in North Korea and wasn’t happy with the standard of living he found in South Korea, where North Koreans have often struggled to resettle in a radically different political and economic environment.

It’s been reported that the defector was a gymnast, and Culver said athletes tend to be more “highly-prized” in North Korean society, where they’re given better diets, lodgings, and are considered national heroes.

“We generally get an idea of North Korea as being a country entirely un-free where people’s lives are incredibly regimented,” Culver said. “But there’s a sizeable number of elites in the North Korean state that are benefiting quite a lot from this regime and live immensely privileged lives, including athletes.”

“My theory is that as a working class person in South Korea, he didn’t have much social status and may have missed the life he had previously where as an athlete he would have been given many more benefits,” Culver added.

North Koreans face discrimination in the South

And it’s not just economic hardships that North Koreans may find difficult about life in the South.

Suzy Kim, associate professor of Korean history at Rutgers University, told Insider that North Korean refugees face discrimination in the South, where they are easily identified due to their regional dialects.

While South Korean government data estimates that at least 30 North Korean defectors returned to their homeland in the past decade, Kim said there are unconfirmed estimates that the number of returnees is “much higher” because they’re able to evade detection.



The famous shopping streets of Myeong-dong in Seoul, South Korea.

Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has made it even more difficult for North Koreans to make a new life in the South, according to Sokeel Park, South Korea Country Director for Liberty in North Korea, a nonprofit which helps North Koreans resettle in South Korea and the US.

“Even in normal times North Korean refugees face a lot of challenges adapting to the South, as the two countries have diverged so much economically and culturally. They have to gain whole new sets of skills and build a whole new community to replace all the relationships they left behind,” Park told Insider.

“The pandemic has exacerbated this, with some in-person support services suspended and newcomers reporting increased loneliness because of the difficulty of building community in socially distanced times,” Park said.

The returning defector could be used as propaganda or be severely punished

It’s unclear what happened to the defector once he crossed back over the border. The North Korean regime has not publicly commented on the incident, but did confirm the receipt of messages from the South Korean military about the crossing, The Guardian reported via the Yonhap news agency.

Culver and Lee are in disagreement about what now becomes of the returned defector. Lee says those who have escaped North Korea are considered betrayers of the state and face several years in prison or a gulag — and even the possibility of execution.

But Culver believes that the North Korean regime will welcome the defector back with open arms, in order to use him as a deterrent to other citizens thinking about fleeing the country.

“I believe they are going to use this as a means to not necessarily solidify their propaganda machine towards the outside, but to show their own people that it’s not that great in the South,” Culver said.

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