Why Is South Korea Making Life Hard on Defectors From the North?
Police surveillance. Mysterious, unexplained travel bans. Restrictions on free speech. Threats of arrest. These are the frightening complaints North Korean defectors shared during the recent North Korean Freedom Week in Washington, DC. But they weren’t recalling their past in North Korea -- they were talking about their lives in the South under President Moon Jae-in. As South Korea pursues its policy of “peace” and “co-prosperity” with its northern neighbor, defectors who wish to speak openly about the cruelty they faced in the North suddenly find themselves silenced and without official support.
Less well known than human-rights abuses elsewhere, the hell that the Kim regime has created in North Korea is nonetheless well documented. North Korea maintains a system of political prisons where inmates are subject to systematic torture, starvation, and death. While a select group of elite North Koreans live in Pyongyang, enjoying Western luxuries and access to the outside world, the caste-like songbunsystem keeps most North Koreans in the dark, figuratively and too often literally. No one, not even high-ranking officials, is exempt from the peril of a public execution. The total absence of the rule of law and of the most basic human rights make North Korea one of the worst places in the world to live.
But Moon’s government wants to transform that narrative as part of its ambitious effort at rapprochement with the North. The South Korean president is fixated on avoiding North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s ire and has adjusted everything from his rhetoric to South Korea’s domestic and foreign policies to fit that end. Moon’s government will not call North Korea its “main enemy,” though the two nations are still at war. Seoul has appealed to European countries to drop sanctions against North Korea, and Moon has devoted substantial effort to swaying U.S. President Donald Trump to his way of thinking. Incredibly, Moon’s government has also proposed changes to school textbooks to minimize North Korean military provocations and remove references to human-rights issues in the North.
Still, all of these efforts to appease one of the world’s last Stalinists pales in comparison to the treatment of North Korean defectors living in the South. Remember, these people have gone through the worst travails that humans can endure, and they are eager to stand up for the people they left behind. On numerous occasions, they have insisted, the South Korean government has requested that they stop criticizing the North. It did so during the buildup to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. One defector who gives lectures on North Korea to military officers was instructed to not discuss the “realities” of life in the North. (Similarly, at these military forums, “unification defense lectures” became merely “unification lectures.”) South Korea’s Ministry of Unification even banned a North Korean defector who had become a journalist at a top newspaper from reporting on the inter-Korean high-level talks in Panmunjeom last October.
Other defectors observe that they have started to feel like criminals in the South. Police intended to protect high-profile defectors from assassination are suspected of also being instruments of surveillance and control for the Seoul government. Defectors claim that as promised in the joint Panmunjom Declaration Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un signed last April, a double-edged police role has prevented defectors from participating in any activism that the North could consider a “hostile act.”
“Hostile acts” include sending balloons over the North-South border containing letters and information on life in South Korea to give North Koreans some exposure to the outside world. Many defectors credit these leaflets as the catalysts for their own defection to the South. One who spoke during Freedom Week admitted that he decided to release balloons on his own after dismissing his own protective services for the evening, and those officers who effectively allowed him to do so were later punished.
Notwithstanding the omnipresent protective services, other defectors complain that the South Korean government has failed to protect outspoken critics of the North. Last August, Thae Young-ho, the highest-ranking defector alive and a fierce critic of the Kim regime, was forced to cancel a public event after receiving threats from a progressive online student community. (The students complained that Thae’s criticisms were “hindering” unification.)
Seoul has also applied systematic pressure on defector organizations, including withdrawing previous financial aid or denying them the opportunity to apply for state support for their human-rights campaign. Defector activists who could once rely on official government support spoke of taking on extra work to personally fund their activities.
All told, the message from the Moon government is clear: Northerners are still welcome, so long as they agree not to exercise their democratic rights to free speech. Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye once openly welcomed defectors, calling for them to “come to the Republic of Korea—a land of freedom—at any time.” Those days are clearly over; and while Moon’s desire to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula is noble, prioritizing reunification over human freedom is not the answer.
Olivia Schieber is the program manager of the Foreign and Defense Policy department at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are the author's own.