North Korea to defectors: Come on home—we’ll even pay you!

Nine young North Korean defectors returned by Laos sing about their loyalty to Kim Jong-un.
Nine young North Korean defectors returned by Laos sing about their loyalty to Kim Jong-un.
Image: Reuters / KCNA
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North Korea is not typically known for its compassion to detractors or critics, and in the past has taken “substantial measures to physically remove” those it sees as traitors. But young leader Kim Jong-un is trying a a little tenderness—and perhaps sweetening the deal with up to 50 million won ($45,000) and TV fame for returning defectors.

Citing sources in the exile community, Reuters reports that North Korean families of defectors to South Korea have been told their relatives will be welcomed home and perhaps even offered cash rewards in exchange for a public denouncement of the South and renewed loyalty to Pyongyang. Meanwhile, over the weekend the two neighbors agreed to resume talks aimed at reuniting families separated by a war between North and South over 60 years ago.

For some of the 25,000-odd North Korean refugees in South Korea, many of whom fled famine and oppression, their new home has been a disappointment. Sokeel Park, the director of research and strategy at NGO Liberty in North Korea, which helps refugees, told Quartz that there are “inevitable challenges in resettling” from such a different world, but that “defectors know the security situation in North Korea better than anyone else.” As a result, “anybody who re-defects is going to be under the highest level of surveillance.” Park said that Pyongyang is not above kidnapping defectors to use as propaganda tools, calling it a little bit Mafia-esque.”

North Korean television rarely misses a chance to use a returning defector as a propaganda puppet. A heavily scripted clip from KCNA aired in November 2012 shows a couple claiming that the South leaves the children of defectors out in the cold and beats them at schools, whereas Kim Jong-un showers kids in the North with his “benevolent embrace.” Park explained that doubt is “the kind of idea that might resonate with North Koreans who might not really know what happens when [they] defect to South Korea. It might make people think twice.”

Human rights groups are skeptical that Pyongyang cares much for escapees. The return by Laos of nine young refugees back to North Korea at the end of May caused outcry because it was feared they might face detention and perhaps death. They also appeared on TV, pledging their loyalty.

Where money and fame is the carrot, it appears to be accompanied by a fairly large stick. Numbers of North Koreans escaping over the border to the South plummeted 44% in 2012, among reports that harsher penalties were being imposed on those caught fleeing.