Notorious for its arbitrary executions, famine and propaganda, North Korea is perhaps one of the world’s most oppressive and brutal regimes in the world. The tens of thousands of people, who managed to flee the pariah state since the 1990s, have each had a concrete reason to leave behind their homes and families.
Most of these defectors fled because they were worried for their lives – either due to lack of resources or because of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s fondness of public executions. While most of them still have friends and families trapped in North Korea, only a rare few have ever requested or expressed a desire to go back. Dressmaker and former resident of Pyongyang, Kim Ryon Hui, is one of them.
Kim belongs to North Korea’s upper echelon, and used to live in a spacious government provided apartment with her family. She claims to have lived a happy life until 2011, when she fell ill with a liver disease and had to travel to China to seek better treatment.
As CNN reports, the woman assumed that medical care in the neighboring country would be state-provided, as it was in North Korea, but she soon learned that the situation was quite different. Before long, Kim found herself unable to keep up with the steep bills for her treatment.
“It became a huge burden for me to go through treatment in that situation. I couldn’t ask my cousin for money,” she recalled. “A broker told me that Chinese people go to South Korea and earn a lot of money. The broker's neighbor also did it for two months.”
Kim wanted to return home to her husband, daughter and aging parents in a healthy state, so she agreed to go to South Korea for two months and earn the money to pay for her recovery – a decision she now deems as the worst mistake she has ever made.
Apparently, the woman had no idea that her citizenship would be renounced in North Korea once she entered the South, or that she would fall under South Korea’s program for defectors, which has no measures in place to help them return home.
“I told them that I didn't know this so I wanted to escape. But the broker took away my passport from me and refused to give it back,” Kim said. “Other defectors who were with me said if I go out and get caught they too will be handed over to China's Public Security and their life will be in jeopardy. Because I didn't have a passport, I had to follow them and I ended up in South Korea.”
Desperate to return to Pyongyang, she even to pretended to be a North Korean spy, hoping the state would deport her. Unbeknownst to her, South Korea has a protocol for defectors according to which they do not banish spies, but imprison them.
Kim was arrested and sentenced two years for passport fraud and espionage, although her sentence was suspended in April. She is currently out on parole and working as a machine operator at a recycling plant with no other option besides being stuck in the South, since her status as a convicted criminal makes travel out of state legally impossible.
“The wrong choice that I made, my choice of wanting to earn money for my treatment, led to the worst situation in my life,” she told CNN. “I am regretting with my heart and I am so sorry that I've brought such suffering to my aging parents and husband and my daughter.”
Apparently, North Korea has also demanded for Kim’s return, but South’s legal framework leaves no room for that.
“The South Korean authorities have torn apart a harmonious family… they must apologize for their crime against humanity, and the main culprits must be brought to justice,” North Korean state media stated. “Kim must be allowed to return to the bosom of [North Korea], in accordance with her strong appeal.”
Meanwhile, her family in Pyongyang is still awaiting her return, and wants her to continue fighting until the very end.