The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] NK defector harbors hopes of returning to North under Moon administration

Kim Ryen-hui says she is a citizen of Pyongyang

By Jo He-rim

Published : Feb. 12, 2018 - 20:45

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A North Korean defector, who has long demanded the South Korean government allow her to return to the North, said her hopes are up that she may be able to go back under the liberal Moon Jae-in administration.

Kim Ryen-hui caught the South Korean public by surprise Monday morning when ran toward a bus parked at Dorasan Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Office that was to carry a North Korean art troupe back North after two performances to mark the PyeongChang Olympics. 

Kim Ryen-hui (Yonhap) Kim Ryen-hui (Yonhap)

Waving the Korean Unification Flag, she is reported to have shouted, “I am Pyongyang citizen Kim Ryen-hui” and “Goodbye.”

When South Korean officials blocked her, she said “I came to bid them farewell” and “Send me home (to Pyongyang) soon,” according to media reports.

Claiming that she “unintentionally” defected to South Korea in 2011, Kim has been calling on the government to allow her to return to the North ever since. However, her attempts have failed and she is currently under investigation for possible violation of the National Security Law.

Kim, 47, told The Korea Herald that she had legally entered the CIQ on Monday, with the help of residents living in the restricted area.

“When a resident comes to pick you up, you can get in. I gave my identity card and went in without any problems,” she said during a phone interview. “I wanted to be as close to them as possible. I have not been able to go back to my home for seven years, but I thought it was beautiful how the North Korean delegates were able to come and go without passports.”

During the interview, Kim said she sees a higher possibility of going back to North Korea with President Moon Jae-in in office.

“I believe the possibility (of returning to North Korea) is higher than under the previous government, because President Moon Jae-in is a former human rights lawyer. He will not overlook this case in which my human rights are brutally violated,” she said.

Formerly a tailor in Pyongyang, Kim claims to have come to the South to pay for treatment for her liver ailment, by “mistake.” She was lured by a broker in China who said that she could earn a lot of money in a few months in South Korea and return home.

She arrived in Seoul via China, Laos and Thailand where she had to sign confirmations of her intention to defect. She claims she was given two choices -- South Korea or the United States. She said she chose South Korea because she thought she would be allowed to go back to the North if she told the truth -- that she did not actually intend to defect. She said she had no other option as her North Korean passport was in the hands of the brokers and she had no way of going back home.

Once she arrived in South Korea, she demanded her return.

“The government says I am a South Korean citizen, so they cannot send me back. But I do not admit that I am a South Korean. I heard government officials have been seriously considering my requests, though,” she said.

“I heard from some that the Unification Ministry worries that I will be used by the North’s regime to propagandize negative sides of the South. They also do not want to set a precedent, as there are already 30,000 defectors settled in South Korea.”

“The government will not issue me a passport, because I have said from the start I will defect back to North Korea.”

Asked if she had tried other, illegal means, to go back, she said she had tried to obtain a forged passport, but failed several times.

A better life is not guaranteed in the North, Kim said. But even if she dies, it is better to be buried next to her family.

“I can make a living and it is no problem living here. I could be in a worse situation and may be starve (in the North). But you cannot trade your family for anything,” Kim said.

Two months ago, she was able to talk to her parents, husband and her now 24-year-old daughter via a video call with help from an American acquaintance who was visiting the North.

Four years after her arrival in South Korea, she served nine months in prison for espionage and passport forgery before she was released after her sentence was suspended on appeal. Kim said she tried to convince the police that she was a spy so that the country would deport her to the North as a troublemaker.

Kim has now been under investigation for over a year for possible violation of the National Security Law. Article 7 of the National Security Law states: Any person who praises, incites or propagates the activities of an antigovernment organization, a member thereof or of the person who has received an order from it, or who acts in concert with it, or propagates or instigates a rebellion against the State, with the knowledge of the fact that it may endanger the existence and security of the State or democratic fundamental order, shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than seven years.

“In one investigation, they asked whether I praised the North by saying things like ‘If I were to be born again, I would want to be born in North Korea,’ and ‘the North is great in the fact that it can rival the United States, the strongest world leader,’” she said.

“How can I go on breathing in this country when they take issue with saying such things?” she said.

By Jo He-rim (