Factors contributing to the decrease in defections in the Kim Jong Un era

A unified Korean Peninsula is something we
all dream about. But what do the experts think that process will look like?
It’s time for “Unification Table Talk” where we interview experts in
the field. 

After Kim Jong Un came to power, the number
of defectors from North Korea has decreased. Today we’re joined by Shin Mi
Nyo, president of The Organization for One Korea, to discuss the reasons
behind the drop in residents fleeing the country.

1. Here in South Korean society, you are
considered the defectors’ “big sister”. Meaning, defectors seem to
trust you and rely on you. Is there a special reason for why you have decided
to work for them?

My
family was one of those that fled to the South and because of that, we were
considered “displaced”. My father came to the South alone during the
Third Battle of Seoul, and for the rest of his life he always cried as he
looked towards the Northern sky. He told us, his children, stories of his
hometown over and over again until we were sick of them. He also made us
memorize his old address and the names of his siblings. I remember being hit
with a club when I couldn’t remember his hometown address. When I was very
young, there was a time when I couldn’t remember more than Northern Hamgyong
Province, Kilju County. I remember crying when I was young because I
couldn’t remember more than that, and my father said that he wouldn’t punish me,
but I still got hit with a cane.

He
kept pushing us to remember until we were fully grown, saying that he didn’t
know what we would do if he died and we couldn’t go to his hometown and find
his family because we didn’t know their names. I grew interested in unification
of the two Koreas because of the way I was raised. After the North Korean
famine, many people defected to the South, and I wanted to help them, thinking
of them as my own cousins, my own family. So, I did. I helped them as though
they were my own family, so now they call me “big sister” or even
“godmother”.
 

2. I see. So, what kind of work does your
group, The Organization for One Korea, do? There are probably many people
listening to this broadcast who are curious, so please tell us about it.

The
Organization for One Korea is a group composed of citizens who are working
towards reunification. It was created 27 years ago, in 1988. There were about
five thousand people who read the book “My Dream, My Challenge”, and
they gathered together to make what was written in the book a reality.

3. Because of your work, you’ve obviously met many defectors. They likely all have different reasons for coming here,
but what do you think is their main reason for defecting?

The reasons are generally dependent on when they left North Korea. The people that came
during the famine made the choice to cross the Tumen River because of economic
reasons: they needed food to eat. After that, people that had already left got
their families in North Korea to defect as well. Also, as you know, in North
Korea, if you want your future to be secure, you have to become a member of the Party. But if you become implicated in some financial or political problem, it
becomes very difficult to live there forever, and thus, people choose to
defect. Basically, people leave for the hope of a better life.

Also,
recently, there are people who decide to defect because of their children’s
education. They think that because their country lacks vision, it doesn’t
matter how good of a university they go to in North Korea. They would rather
their children live freely and get their education elsewhere. 

Usually,
North Koreans that have defected send money back to their families in their
hometown. However, recently, the situation has changed. They send their
children to the South for education and send them money instead. Because of
that, we can see that there is a huge difference in defecting and opportunities
for defecting now than there were in the past.  

4. After Kim Jong Un came to power, the
number of defectors has gone down. There must be an obvious reason for this.
What do you think it is?

Yes,
there is a very obvious reason for this. After Kim Jong Un came to power, the
number of people leaving North Korea cut in half. During Kim Jong Il’s time,
the government responded to defectors by simply saying, “Go, you
traitors!” This was because the government was in a financial crisis and
had no control over people leaving. However, after Kim Jong Un came to power,
the policy changed to if you defect, your entire family would be subject to extreme surveillance and routinely forced to pay bribes to evade further punishment or exile. This policy was
created to completely stop anyone from leaving. Regulations have become quite
strict in this respect.

Potential
defectors have two ways of getting out of North Korea. One is enlisting the
help of a broker, and one is to go about it by one’s self. However, it has
become extremely difficult to enlist the help of a broker. Last year I went to
China, and saw that there are more barbed wire fences along the border than
before. It’s the same on the North Korean side too. There are even walls built
on some parts.

Kim
Jong Un is so serious about not letting anyone leave North Korea, that he’s
even given live ammunition to the soldiers in the border area. They have been
ordered to shoot if they see anyone trying to escape. The people that live in
the border area are accustomed to drinking the river water and even doing their
laundry there. But now they have specifically designated times when they’re
allowed to go to the river. They are strictly prohibited from doing their
laundry there after dark. Also, Kim Jong Un had to accept that he couldn’t
fully control the soldiers around the border area. Instead, he fully put the
blame on defecting on the defectors themselves. Basically, he’s telling the
soldiers that they would not be held responsible for defectors.

Also, in the Kim Jong Il era, people generally had two choices: dying of
hunger or dying while trying to escape. Government rationing had come to a halt,
and people starved to death. However, after that, the black markets sprung up
and people started to do business there and make a living. Therefore, because
people are able to live and eat in North Korea, there is no reason to risk
getting shot by trying to escape. This is also a reason for the decrease in
defectors.

5. Let’s talk about Kim Jong Un’s so-called
“reign of terror”. Some claim that Kim Jong Un’s reign of terror is
pointed out as the main reason for the decrease in defectors. What do you think
about that assertion?

The
start of Kim Jong Un’s regime was different from the start of his father Kim
Jong Il’s. In order to maintain his reign, Kim Jong Un is resorting to
“fear” politics” because he, unlike his father, has no foundation for perpetuating the regime. While
Jang Song Thaek was still alive, Kim Jong Un had some degree of footing regarding legitimacy, but purging Jang Song Thaek has made Kim Jong Un the odd man out.
Even ordinary citizens have caught onto what’s going because Kim Jong Un is purging and/or killing off his closest advisers, exacerbating the situation.

But
the more interesting thing is that, even with all of these things happening,
the North Korean authorities have all become ‘criminals and
conspirators.’ This is because Party members, heads of enterprises, soldiers, etc.
don’t get money from the state anymore and have to find a way to earn money and
survive. Therefore they have resorted to accepting bribes from ordinary
citizens who have committed crimes. Officially, there may be terror politics in
play, but the ordinary citizens are not very affected.

6. The policy regarding defectors has
probably gotten really strict, too. Defectors’ families have probably been
punished. What is the Kim Jong Un regime doing in regards to defectors’
families in North Korea?

They relegate three generations of a defector’s family as “impure” but the repercussions vary. Kim Jong Un had imposed sanctions
on all teachers, party officials, State Security Department agents, etc. who
had defectors in their families, but it didn’t work on the ordinary citizens.

For
defectors, Kim Jong Un has actually gone from using a containment policy to a more
conciliatory policy. The conciliatory policy involved defectors that would then
come back to North Korea and give lectures and press interviews. They would say
that they went to the South but couldn’t survive there, and urge other North
Koreans not to defect to the South. But about 28,000 North Koreans have already
defected, so everyone knows the truth of how life is in the South and what the
policies are. 

6-1. You spoke about defectors going back
to North Korea. It looks like the North Korean authorities are exploiting these
people and using them as propaganda.

There’s
a woman who was part of our organization who went back to North Korea. I didn’t
know until she had already left, but it looks like the North Korean authorities
were holding her family as hostage, and so she went back to free them. In the
past, North Korea even used those nine students who were repatriated from Laos
as propaganda, by saying that they were living well. However, all of the
defectors here don’t believe it. Those people are just being used as
propaganda. It certainly seems that way because they all try to escape after
being “saved”. Kim Jong Un is just using these people as part of his
defector policy.
 

7. I’d like to compare Kim Jong Un’s
defector policy and regulation policies regarding ordinary citizens. What are
the differences between his policies and those of Kim Jong Il?

During
Kim Jong Il’s time, there wasn’t much he could do to control the situation. He
just named them “traitors” and scorned them. He called the people
that crossed the Tumen River traitors and reactionaries. However, after Kim
Jong Un came to power, the families of those who left North Korea were envied
because they were able to eat and live well. However, officially and politically
speaking, regulations are tighter than ever before. Kim Jong Un is using every
measure possible to ensure people won’t defect, including threatening to exile the families of those who leave and upping surveillance.

8. It looks like it has become more
difficult to defect. I understand that you can’t say more on this topic for
security reasons, but how are people leaving North Korea right now?

The
first place you go to after leaving North Korea is China, but coming directly
to South Korea from China is difficult. Usually people go through a third country like Laos, Cambodia, or Thailand, but recently security has gotten very
strict. So now it’s very difficult to defect without any help, and because the
border between North Korea and China has become so fortified that it’s nearly
impregnable, it has become much more expensive to pay brokers to get you
through. In 2013, you could cross the Tumen River for 2,500,000 KRW if you had
good connections. If not, the price was about 3,000,000 KRW. Right now, though,
it’s about 8,000,000 to 10,000,000 KRW. That alone should show you how
difficult it is for brokers to get anyone across.

9. You bring hope to South Korean society with
your words about unification. I’m sure there are many people in North Korea who
would like to feel the warmth of your words as well. Would you like to say
something to our listeners?

We may be in the dark right now, but there is light at the
end of the tunnel. Spring always follows the winter. To the North Korean people, spring is reunification, and I believe that reunification will come soon. It
may seem like a long way from now, but I hope that you can wait for it by
taking it a day at a time. Personally, after reunification, I would like to
meet my father in his hometown. 

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