THE PRODIGAL SON RETURNS

A North Korean defector returns home and tearfully rips up her own memoir

Welcome back to Pyongyang.
Welcome back to Pyongyang.
Image: AP Photo/Dita Alangkara
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Kim Jong-un loves a good spectacle. Since taking over as supreme leader of North Korea in 2011, he’s reportedly built a massively expensive ski resort, had his uncle executed, and claims to have tested a hydrogen bomb. And in a change of strategy from his father, Kim Jong-il, he also loves to make a show of welcoming home defectors.

These public displays began in 2012, when, in an unusual move for the isolated country, Pyongyang held a press conference for international and local media showing a woman tearfully admitting she made a mistake leaving the country. Since then, there have been at least half a dozen similar media appearances by returned defectors, often heavily scripted, intended to express national pride and triumph.

The latest example is a video published on North Korean news site Uriminzokkiri on Saturday (Jan. 16), showing a recently returned woman named Son Ok-sun expressing her regrets at having defected to South Korea in 2000.

In the video, Son describes her disillusionment with life in South Korea, criticizing its healthcare, politics, and suicide rates. “The weak kids aren’t able to follow those demands [of stronger kids] and are constantly bullied. Eventually the weaker kids who aren’t able to withstand the suffering commit suicide,” she says.

According to the video, Son is the author of a memoir about her escape, Longing for Light, published in South Korea under the pseudonym Esther Joo, and translated into English in 2014. Son denounces the book, saying much has changed in North Korea in the 10 years since she wrote it. Toward the end of the video, Son is shown tearfully ripping up the book in an act of recantation.

In her memoir, Son had painted a bleak portrait of North Korea’s human rights record, which is one of the worst in the world. Pyongyang “has been super sensitive to international criticism on their human rights, and they’ve been pushing back in a lot of different ways,” says Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea, an NGO that works with defectors. The video of Son “fits into a pattern of that,” Park says.

Confirmation of redefections is rare: As of 2013, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification had only acknowledged 13 people who had defected to the south and gone back, although there are some estimate the numbers are higher.

Kim has prioritized reducing defection numbers by ramping up border security, says Park, and has tried to woo people back with offers of cash and a promise they won’t be harmed if they return. This strategy, along with a less sympathetic South Korean government, appears to have worked—the number of defections has dropped sharply (Korean) since Kim took power in 2011, according to the South Korean unification ministry.

Jeanne Kim assisted with translation for this story.