The South Korean recently government deported two North Koreans captured in the East Sea. Amid questions surrounding what happened after they entered South Korean waters up until their deportation back to North Korea, the South Korean government has come under increasing criticism from various quarters about its decision to deport the North Koreans. 

What might North Koreans think about the controversy surrounding this deportation? Following the South Korean government’s decision to deport the North Koreans on Nov. 7, Daily NK conducted a series of interviews with a Pyongyang-based official, a Daily NK source based in North Korea, and a defector who had previously worked at a fishing enterprise in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province. 

The interviewees expressed doubt about the South Korean government’s announcement that three North Koreans had murdered 16 crew members on their boat, and were unanimously of the opinion that the deported North Koreans would very likely be sent to a forced labor camp or executed.

The interviewees were also in agreement about the likelihood that the North Korean government would use this incident as an example of why its citizens should avoid fleeing to South Korea. That is, with the aim of discouraging North Koreans from attempting to escape, the authorities would likely emphasize that North Koreans fleeing to South Korea would and could be sent back. 

The following is the full Q&A. “A” is the official from Pyongyang, “B” is the Daily NK source based in North Korea, and “C” is the defector who used to work at a fishing enterprise in Chongjin.

Q. The South Korean government has deported two North Koreans back to North Korea. The government’s stance is that the North Koreans committed a heinous crime, killing 16 crew members on their boat. There are many who doubt the veracity of this statement. What are your thoughts?

A: Unless they had a gun to shoot the others, it seems unlikely. If they thoroughly planned it in advance, and if it was the middle of the night when the others were asleep, then yes, three could kill 16. But it is inconceivable that the three were the only ones on duty at night. Generally for the night shift there is one senior and one or two junior workers on duty at a time, and it seems impossible that all three were on duty at the same time. That’s because it’s unlikely that one of the three, given that they were only in their 20s, was in a senior position, and responsible for the others.

C: If there were indeed 16 on that fishing boat, it would have been difficult for them to work; their fishing wires would have gotten tangled together. Moreover, it would have been just barely possible for five people to sleep at the same time. Most people want to earn money, so they work without sleeping. Also, those who work on the squid-catching boats [the type of boat the men were on] will board with their friends, in pairs, so it makes no sense that the three killed all of those people.

Q. How might the North Korean authorities deal with the deportees? 

A: In North Korea, those who commit crimes and escape to China are said to then escape to South Korea. However, when the news of this incident spreads, it’s likely that they’ll say that even if you manage to escape to South Korea, you’ll only be deported again. Why did the South Korean government have to make such a careless decision? It really is a pity. It would have been far more preferable if they’d been tried in a South Korea court under South Korean law. Furthermore, why did the South Korean government deport them through Panmunjom, surely knowing as they did that once they were sent back, they would most likely be executed? Were they sending them back to die? If they had been allowed to choose what country they would have been tried in, they would have absolutely chosen to be prosecuted in South Korea.

B: North Korea will attempt to use this incident to discourage defections, which it has long been unable to prevent. First, they will force these men to say that South Korea is not a society of opportunity to the extent that people should abandon their families to live there. The North Korean state will claim that the South Korean government has an unconditional policy of deportation.

C: North Korea will leverage this incident politically to claim that if you defect to South Korea, the South Korean government will just send you right back

Q. How might the deported defectors be punished?

A: For a situation of this magnitude, a report has to be sent to Kim Jong Un. Then it’s obvious, isn’t it? If it’s not execution by firing squad, it will be execution by hanging. However, insofar as news of this incident has not spread too widely, it is more likely that they’ll be executed quietly rather than publicly. In the case that the news spreads, however, it seems likely that they will be executed publicly by firing squad, or in front of an audience of fellow fishermen. 

B: After an investigation, if it is judged that the returnees know too much, and are likely to endanger the “revolutionary spirit” of North Korea, they’ll likely be quietly executed or sent to a forced labor camp. I’m certain they will not be able to rejoin North Korean society.

C: North Koreans captured in China are sentenced to three years in prison. Those who are captured attempting to defect to South Korea are either executed by firing squad or sent to forced labor camps (political prisoner camps). The South Korean government’s deportation of those two North Koreans was effectively a death sentence for them and their families.

Q. There are some who believe that this incident will discourage other North Koreans from attempting to defect.

A: I think that many who are considering defection will now reconsider because of their fear of deportation. 

B: Those with boats attempt to defect by sea, those who can swim attempt to defect across the river, and those who live by the border attempt to defect across it. North Korean authorities have a difficult time preventing defections. However, if word spreads that some people who defected to South Korea were deported back to North Korea, then we might see many North Koreans lose hope and despair.

C: For the time being, this deportation incident will discourage North Koreans from attempting to defect. When people hear about this from North Korean state propaganda, then those who might have otherwise attempted defection might fear falling prey to the same fate.

*Translated by Violet Kim

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Ha Yoon Ah is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to