HONG KONG, CHINA — The repatriation to Seoul of six citizens who defected to North Korea in recent years has intrigued a South Korean public accustomed to the flow of refugees in the opposite direction, an observer says.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry announced the return of the six men, aged between 27 and 67, at the truce village of Panmunjom Friday, along with the body of the South Korean wife of one of the defectors.
Arrest warrants were issued in relation to the men for breaching national security laws, said the ministry, and investigations would be carried out into the circumstances of their defections, and into the woman’s death.
Pyongyang’s official KCNA news agency said it had “leniently pardoned” the men on humanitarian grounds, allowing them to reunite with their families because they “candidly admitted and repented their crime” of illegal entry.
The men reportedly told officials that they had entered the North illegally through China between 2009 and 2012, either by jumping off Chinese cruise ships plying the rivers between the countries, or walking over the rivers when they were frozen, according to South Korea’s semi-official Yonhap news agency.
Citing officials, Yonhap reported that some of the men had suffered personal hardships, including business failures and family troubles, and expected that life would be better in the North. Some had participated in pro-Pyongyang campaigns online, and anticipated a warm welcome in North Korea in return for their efforts, it was reported.
Instead, the men claimed to have been held and questioned in detention centers for up to 45 months before being repatriated, said the report.
The widower of the dead woman told South Korean authorities he had strangled her as part of a failed suicide pact, according to Yonhap, but a statement from South Korea’s Unification Ministry said that Pyongyang officials claimed the man had murdered his wife in a marital dispute.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service and Unification Ministry told CNN they were unable to comment on the Yonhap report.
Jasper Kim, founder of the Asia-Pacific Global Research Group, said the story had been big news in South Korea, where defectors to the North were a rarity.
He said the men appeared to have been motivated to defect largely out of “socio-economic disillusionment” and desperation.
“The people who left appear to have been part of the have-nots in the economy,” he said. “They definitely weren’t greeted with leis and ukuleles playing. What they expected and what they got were vastly different things.
“It shows you maybe the people that went there weren’t your typical South Korean citizens. I think it was a desperate, last-ditch move.”
He said the return of the men could be viewed as a conciliatory turn from Pyongyang following a tumultuous pattern of brinkmanship this year, which has seen tensions with the South soar over a nuclear test in February, soothe with the re-opening of the Kaesong joint industrial park then ratchet up again with the North’s cancellation of scheduled reunions for separated families.
It also served a propaganda purpose for Pyongyang, in advancing a narrative that it wasn’t only Seoul who was “accepting refugees in search of a better tomorrow.”
“What they’re saying to South Korea, but more importantly the world, is that it’s not just North Korea that has economic woes,” said Kim.
Seoul returned four North Korean fishermen and their boat Sunday, a day after the vessel crossed into southern territory suffering engine failure, Yonhap reported.
In August, South Korean fisherman Jeon Wook-pyo was reunited with his family in Seoul more than 40 years after he was abducted by North Korean agents, having escaped via a third country.
Journalist Soo Bin Park contributed to this report.
By Tim Hume
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