This article is very long, but it was somewhere between a hilarious and an interesting read. To summarize, 46-year-old Kim Ryeonhee, landed at Incheon airport on September 16, 2011. By her own account, she lived a middle-class lifestyle in Pyongyang as the wife of a doctor until she got sick and decided to seek treatment in China.
In China, she found that the treatment was too expensive to afford, so she decided to just work at a restaurant and take the money back to North Korea. While working there, she came across a broker who took North Korean defectors to South Korea and told her that she could make even more money in the South. By the time she realized that she couldn’t just spend a few months working in the South and then leave, it was already too late, the broker had her passport and wouldn’t let her leave. She says that she didn’t try to escape anyway because it would have endangered the other defectors.
So, she arrived in South Korea and immediately declared that she wanted to be sent back. The National Intelligence Service wouldn’t send her back, though, so she decided to go through the process of becoming a South Korean citizen and then just fly to China. However, having already requested deportation to the North, she was refused a passport. She then tried to get North Korea to help her, calling the North Korean consulate in Shenyang five times.
This, along with supposedly having given information about other defectors to a North Korean spy outside of a soccer game, led to Kim being charged with violating the South Korean National Security Act and being charged with a spy. She was convicted but given a suspended sentence, which is how she met with the Hankyoreh reporter who wrote this.
In effect, Kim stands as a South Korean citizen with a travel ban, not entirely uncommon if you consider travel bans on those who want to fight for ISIS, for example, or anyone else with ongoing legal proceedings, as is the case for Kim. On the other hand, Kim and her lawyers have pointed out that South Korea does send back North Korean fishermen who drift into South Korean waters, while North Korea does the same. At the same time, there is no process for sending back defectors to the North, which is why Kim remains where she is.
The top comment on the article incredulously asks “So you were living a middle-class lifestyle in Pyongyang, left it to get a part-time job here, got caught and now you can’t go back? And you expect us to believe that?”. Clearly, something about this doesn’t add up, because how can Kim declare, over and over, that not only is she a North Korean citizen with no desire to live in the South, but that Kim Il-sung “is like my parents, my body, my soul”? Why would someone like that willingly come to South Korea? Why would she worry, as she did, about the other defectors she met in China, who presumably did not share her affection for Kim Il-sung?
One thing that appears to be true, though, is that Kim was vocal about not wanting to come to the South when she found out, while in China, that she probably wouldn’t be able to slip out of South Korea as easily as she could slip out of China into North Korea. Another defector testifies to this. It’s possible that Kim simply made a dumb mistake in agreeing to come South and couldn’t undo it. It’s also possible, likely even, that she didn’t have the foresight, once having agreed to come to South Korea, that she could have kept her mouth shut and obtained a passport to go to China, if going back to North Korea was her goal.
On the other hand, if her story happened exactly the way she says it did, going public in South Korea with her story and having her photo (and name, if that’s her real name) published in South Korean newspaper can’t be good for her. She says that when she explained her situation to the North Korean consulate in Shenyang, they responded by asking “how can someone who received the generosity of the Fatherland commit a sin like this?” Clearly, she won’t just get to go back to her home in Pyongyang, so she must have motivations other than patriotism for wanting to go back to the country she didn’t seem all that concerned about in 2011.
If Kim is a spy, she doesn’t seem like a very good one. The five calls she made to the North Korean consulate were used as evidence in her espionage case, with the prosecution arguing that she received instructions from North Korean intelligence officials, but it seems overly obvious for a spy to simply dial up the consulate. If she was a spy, she wouldn’t declare her loyalty to the North before even coming to the South, but it seems even less likely that she would have made, and would have been taken, thousands of kilometres from China’s Shandong province to Laos and then Thailand, where she boarded a plane to Incheon.
Whatever the truth is, it seems safe to say two things about it. First, it probably will never be known in this case, because Kim’s story is so utterly unbelievable, in the literal sense of the word. Second, whatever her past and whatever her motivations, it’s safe to say that things have horribly gone wrong for Kim. She may have been a spy at some point, or perhaps was a spy whose mission went awry, but she seems destined to live in this limbo for the foreseeable future. If what she is saying is the truth, she appears to be an incredibly naive woman who made some bad decisions with horrible, irreversible consequences.