Kwon Chol-nam: the North Korean defector who regrets leaving home

Kwon Chol-nam: the North Korean defector who regrets leaving home

For most people in the western world, the concept of living in a dictatorship is nightmarish beyond belief. To those enjoying constitutional rights and all the other freedoms we so often take for granted, North Korea seems a million miles away. Guilty of a laundry list of horrendous human rights abuses, the citizens of the totalitarian state are subjugated and dominated from cradle to grave.

We've pointed out before just how many eerie similarities the far eastern nation has with the dystopian Britain depicted in George Orwell's 1984, but there is one crucial difference. In Orwell's text, the citizens of Oceania have become so accustomed to their own brutal society that they have virtually given up on any form of resistance, and make no attempt to escape. In North Korea however, the population is anything but passive, and a great many North Koreans have risked execution, incarceration and torture in order to escape to South Korea.

Escaping a prison state is no mean feat: particularly when every individual, from the smallest child to the oldest grandfather, is subject to intense surveillance. Even after the defection is successful, it takes North Koreans a long time to rehabilitate themselves and gradually adjust to life in a free society. Most succeed, and go on to live happy lives. But for some, the culture shock is almost unbearable. Now a North Korean defector has admitted that he regrets his decision to leave and wants to go home: something which is outright impossible under South Korean law.

Kwon Chol-nam fled North Korea in 2014, when the 44-year-old was a herb dealer living near the Chinese border. He escaped with a woman he had met picking berries, by wading through a river and crawling through miles of barbed wire to safety. After a trek that would put the entirety of Lord of the Rings to shame, Chol-nam finally made it all the way to Thailand via Laos, paying $2,500 to a human trafficker to smuggle him from China. From Thailand, he was permitted to fly to South Korea. Yet he arrived there with little support, no prospects, assets or money, and spent most of his time drifting from shelter to shelter.

Barbed wire at the Demilitarised Zone. Credit: Getty

He has since become disillusioned with life in a capitalist country, and has expressed a sincere wish to return home to his family. The remorseful defector has made repeated attempts to return home, despite the risk to his own life. Chol-nam has held press conferences, petitioned the UN, even picketed government buildings in Seoul, and then attempted to return covertly back to the North by obtaining a tourist visa to enter China, but was arrested and detained by South Korean police.

A North Korean officer surveys the Demilitarised Zone. Credit: Getty

The sticking point for Chol-nam is that, upon his arrival to South Korea, he was automatically granted South Korean citizenship. Yet South Korea's laws explicitly forbid that South Koreans attempt to travel to the North unless granted state permission. Chol-nam isn't even allowed to transfer the money he makes working in South Korea to his family back home because of the strict legislation.

But the thing that makes Chol-nam's life most miserable, according to his own account, is the discrimination and prejudice he claims he is regularly subjected to by South Koreans. Chol-nam says he is unable to find work because he does not speak English, and because of his short height (a result of a lifetime of malnourishment) he has been unable to find work where physically-demanding labour is routine. He finally snapped when his bricklayer boss refused to pay him full wages for his work, and his father died back home in North Korea.

In a recent interview, Chol-nam stated: "You have to ride a horse to know whether it’s the right mount for you. I have tried, and the South is not for me. I want to go home to the North to reunite with my ex-wife and 16-year-old son ... [South Koreans] called me names, treating me like an idiot, and didn’t pay me as much as others doing the same work, just because I was from the North ... I went through difficulties in the South that I hadn’t known in the North. I am afraid to live in the South. In the North, I may not be rich, but I would better understand people around me and wouldn’t be treated like dirt as I have been in the South."

Korean guards at the Demilitarised Zone. Credit: Getty

Chol-nam is trapped in poverty, reduced to smoking cigarette butts off the ground, and suffering the pain of being the ultimate outcast. He's an enemy of Pyongyang for fleeing the North, he's bullied and patronised by South Koreans, and his fellow defectors mistrust and shun him. Indeed, some believe him to actually be an agent working for the North to this day, and believe that he "escaped" to South Korea for propaganda purposes; so he could return to the North later, and tell the population about the "living hell" he experienced outside the confines of the regime.

This speculation isn't as paranoid as it might first sound: other defectors have mysteriously returned to the North before, in order to disparage other democratic nations and appear contrite and remorseful for escaping in the first place. Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, met Chol-nam in July of 2017, and has since stated that: "These cases highlight the complexity of the family separation issue that started 70 years ago - and the fact that it continues to take new forms and affect people in the Korean Peninsula in profound ways."

More than 30,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea since famine devastated the country in the 90s, and of these, 63 per cent have experienced discrimination while living in the South, according to a study conducted by the Korea Institute for National Unification. If that doesn't disturb you, then read all about what doctors recently found in a North Korean defector's bloodstream.