Watching the Defectors

What happens to North Korean refugees when they make it to the south?

On a recent weeklong trip to Seoul, it proved surprisingly difficult to meet any of the 6,300 North Korean defectors residing in South Korea. Last year alone saw a huge influx—almost 2,000 of them. Starting in late 2004, in an attempt to halt the flow, North Korea publicly executed “brokers” who help defectors cross to China, and the Chinese authorities stepped up their efforts to seek out and return refugees, driving them further underground.

Still, we rarely hear their stories, so I really wanted to talk to a defector. All my sources—government officials, human rights activists, politicians, journalists—said that none would talk to me unless I paid them for the interview. They explained that the defectors think they have nothing to gain, and often much to lose, by talking. They also dread having their lives exposed to South Koreans, who already look down on them for their inability to function in a free and capitalistic society.

I wasn’t about to pay anyone, and I wanted to find someone whose story hadn’t already been picked over by the South Korean media. After a tip from a shoe-shine attendant, I set out for the Wolgyedong neighborhood, where I was told several North Koreans were living. I still wasn’t sure how to find a defector. Should I just buttonhole passers-by? But there were very few people around. Should I go door to door?

After hours of fruitless wandering, I decided to take a break and picked out a tiny, insalubrious eatery where three men were eating haejangook—a Korean hangover remedy. Although the cook’s dumpling and rice soup was so-so, her information was excellent: She told me that the young man operating the fruit shop on the ground floor hung out with North Koreans—an excellent return on my $4 lunch.

The next day, the fruit vendor came through. He graciously passed on a North Korean friend’s cell number, telling me that Whang was expecting my call. (For the refugees’ protection, it is standard practice not to use full names; in this case, Whang told me that the North Korean government likely has him listed as missing or, given its poor record-keeping—estimates of North Korea’s population range from 17 million to 23 million—may not even know or care about his existence.) I invited him to meet me at the Hotel Shilla, where I had a late afternoon interview.

Whang’s lined face made him look older than 35 years. He had succeeded in defecting on his third attempt in September 2003. From China he went to a third country with the help of a broker, paid for with his earnings from a clam-shell-processing factory and money loaned to him by his relatives, finally arriving in South Korea. He almost died a few times; he was caught by Russian and Chinese officers; and he was returned and detained by the North Korean KGB on at least one occasion. One time he was released from a labor camp after he faked an injury (the government lacks the resources to treat internees). He even ate a piece of nail once he made it into China, hoping that when he was hit, his intestine or colon would burst, and he would be sent to a hospital, from where it would be easier to escape. Ironically, no one brutalized him.

In North Korea, Whang was a member of the Chosun Labor Party, which means that he had a modicum of social standing; he served his mandatory 10-year military service after high school; and he worked as a repairman. His desire to flee North Korea started when he couldn’t get a divorce and lacked the wherewithal to bribe the judges. (North Korea’s regime is probably one of the most corrupt on the planet, and cigarettes and alcohol go a long way there.) Whang’s downfall came when he got involved with another woman after separating from his wife; lacking divorce papers, he was sent to a labor camp. This was when he gave serious consideration to escape—but there was a price. Whang’s older sister now cares for his 6-year-old daughter. “I miss her the most,” he told me, but at least he talks to her regularly by phone. These days, people can use Chinese communications systems, operators in China who connect Chinese cell phones with those in North Korea, to talk with family members they left behind, and at least a few Christian pastors in Seoul told me they are in touch with underground believers in North Korea via cell phone.

As he spoke, I noticed two suspicious-looking men walk into the restaurant. The Hotel Shilla, once voted the best hotel in Asia, is still one of the poshest in Korea. Everyone knows that men dressed like typical plainclothes officers—cheap blue cotton windbreakers and dark blue pants—just don’t venture into such an expensive restaurant for happy hour. They didn’t order food, although they did seem to get drinks. Meanwhile, we ordered one of the cheapest dishes on the menu, which still cost more than $100—fish would have been at least four times that. The ugly ducklings were painfully conspicuous because they would check us out every so often, trying hard not to be noticed.

They may have been agents of South Korea’s powerful National Intelligence Service, but it’s more likely they were police officers working under the orders of the NIS. Since Whang told me his cell-phone activity could be tracked, NIS had probably tapped our phone conversation. Although I was annoyed at the violation of our rights, I confess I was a little impressed by the authorities’ power. They probably turned in a report of our gestures (my taking notes), since they couldn’t have overheard our conversation.

Although South Korea undoubtedly pursues a policy of engagement with the north, the NIS is appropriately suspicious and paranoid of the northern regime. Many defectors may well be North Korean agents. I could be one, for all they knew. An estimated 2,000 to 40,000 South Korean residents are thought to be spies from the north; some are even thought to occupy high levels of government.

Once a North Korean defector makes it to South Korea (after having been questioned overseas at a South Korean consulate or embassy for at least two months to weed out agents, criminals, and fake Chinese defectors of Korean descent who want to come to South Korea for the government resettlement stipend), he or she is sent to a secret location for further questioning. The NIS, military intelligence, and the unification ministry all collaborate to investigate the defector’s identity. Whang remembered the process being surprisingly cordial. Defectors are then sent for three months (two when Whang came over) to Hanawon, a training and education facility where they take a course in the South Korean way of life. They get citizenship cards 10 days after they “graduate,” and they can apply for a passport to travel overseas. The South Korean government rents a small apartment for the defectors and gives them settlement money ($36,000 when Whang came).

But there is a catch. For six months or so, each defector is assigned a police officer who helps them adjust, offers protection from northern agents, and also ensures they don’t cause any trouble. For higher-level defectors, this surveillance period can continue for more than a year; I also interviewed a high-level defector who has half a dozen agents protecting him 24 hours a day.

Whang recently got a job at a factory making about $1,000 a month, an average blue-collar wage, and he hopes to unite with his daughter some day. But the North Korean regime shows little sign of impending natural collapse, so a cell phone that’s monitored by the NIS may be Whang’s only connection to his daughter for some time to come.