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North Koreans in South Korea Face Imprisonment for Wanting to Return Home

Contrary to what the US government and corporate media have conditioned us to associate only with North Korea, a Korean in the South finds herself subject to prosecution for violating the South’s National Security Law because she seeks to move to the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea [DPRK].

Kim Ryon-hui, 48, a North Korean, kept in the South against her will for the past six years, has been demanding repatriation, having been tricked by a “defection” broker to come to South Korea. South Korea’s ironically named Ministry of Unification maintains that Kim’s repatriation is not allowed by domestic law.

South Korea’s National Security Law, enacted in 1948, has prevented exchange and collaboration for peace between the South and North.  The law criminalizes “anti-state” activities such as speaking favorably of North Korea or questioning South Korea’s stance towards the DPRK. In the past, thousands have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms for  opposing South Korean policies or for making comments deemed sympathetic to the North.  Between 1961-2002, 182 were actually executed for violating the National Security Law.

The South Korean government even cracked down on expressions of condolences for the death of previous DPRK leader Kim Jong Il. In 2012, New York Times reported that South Korean police deleted 67,300 web posts they believed threatened national security by “praising North Korea and denouncing the US and the government.”

The National Security Law makes it illegal to have contact with the North – no phone calls, no emails, no letters. Recognizing the DPRK as a political entity, printing, distributing, or ownership of “anti-government” material, such as a North Korean movie or an even-handed documentary about North Korea, can make a person subject to arrest. It is also a crime to knowingly not report that someone possesses this information. Praising DPRK’s self-reliance Juche philosophy also violates the law.

In  2011, 178 South Korean websites were shut down for allegedly pro-North Korea content. Those criticizing official South Korean statements on the sinking of South Korean warship Cheonan in the international arena have had the law used against them.

The National Security Law violations directed at Kim Ryon-hui include praise of North Korea, and escape. Kim posted material supporting the DPRK government on her Facebook , including a video commemorating a holiday celebrating North Korean founding leader Kim Il-sung and a song to Kim Il-sung. Kim Ryon-hui is also charged with statements she made in an interview such as this.  And she is charged with visiting  the Vietnam embassy in South Korea for help in returning to North Korea.

In April 2015, Kim received a two-year jail sentence suspended for three years (equivalent of probation) for the “crime” of making a phone call to a North Korean consulate in China, asking for help to return home.

Kim Ryon-hui said June 14, “I’m not demanding to be sent back to the North because I lived in South Korea for a while and regretted it. I‘m a North Korean citizen detained in South Korea by the National Intelligence Service against my will. Instead of sending me to prison again, they should send me home through Panmunjom.”

While living in the DPRK, Kim received permission to go to China in June 2011 to visit relatives and seek medical care for liver disease. While hospitalized for six months in North Korea, she had heard China had more advanced treatment. She assumed it would be free of charge, as in North Korea, where the state covers most expenses including housing, healthcare, and higher education.

But once in China, Kim found she couldn’t afford the medical bills.  “A broker told me that Chinese people go to South Korea and earn a lot of money. The broker’s neighbor also did it for two months…. So I said I will go to South Korea for two months and earn the money and get myself treated.” On the way she learned she would not be able to return home, and on arriving in the South, she asked to be repatriated to the North. This is in fact a crime in the South. In order to be released from the South Korean processing center, Kim had to sign a document renouncing her citizenship and become a South Korean citizen.

In Pyongyang in 2015, a CNN correspondent interviewed Kim’s husband and then 21-year-old daughter, who hadn’t seen her mom since she was 17.

“Why? Why can’t she come back,” asks her daughter Ri Gyon Gum. “Why do we have to go through such suffering? Why do they drag her like this, despite how she says she wants to go back, [why] not let her go? She has her family, husband and daughter in her country, a daughter who misses her mother, a husband who misses his wife. Do they not have heart and blood?” There is an international campaign to give Kim Ryon-hui the freedom she wants, the right to return home to her family in North Korea.

She is not the only North Korean in the South seeking to return home. Under the present North Korean leader Kim Jong Un,  the law has changed so that North Koreans returning to the DPRK are not punished.

South Korea officially admits 13 North Korean emigres have returned home, but activists say many more have gone back unofficially.  Kim Gwan-ho, one “defector” to the South, wished to “defect” back to the North, and did so through China. He then “defected” again to the South, and there sentenced to prison for three years. The group, Christian Ministers for Peace Action, has taken up the case of North Korean emigre  Kwon Choi-nam, 44, who says he was says he was also tricked by a broker, and now also accused of violating the National Security Law.

Not only North Koreans in the South seek to “defect” to the North. The most inhumane case occurred on September 16, 2013 when South Korean – not North Korean –  soldiers shot and killed a South Korean man, Nam Yong-ho, as he tried to swim to North Korea. Their superior officer said, “I believe the soldiers did what they were supposed to do according to rules.”  The London Times reported he was fired upon by 30 South Korean soldiers.

Amnesty International noted that in 2015 South Korea broadened the National Security Law to include members of Parliament and foreign nationals. “The latest clamp down on free speech involves two women who organized and spoke about North Korea during a speaking tour in South Korea. The tour took place in November 2014. One of them, Korean-American Shin Eun-mi, was deported in January 2015 and banned from returning for five years.

Even though here in the US, North Korea is considered the repressive regime responsible for  blocking peace and reunification of the Korean nation, the South’s own National Security Law serves that very function. In a statement on the day she was deported to the US, Shin wrote, “What I said in my books and lectures is that we should move quickly to achieve peaceful reunification since there is nothing barring the people in North and South Korea from living together in a single community. How does this jeopardize public safety or harm the interests of the country?”

Unfortunately here in the US, the endless no-holds-barred disinformation campaign against the DPRK, including the claim North Korea killed Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un’s half-brother in the Malaysian airport (a claim not made by Malaysian prosecutors), North Korea’s hacking of Sony, and one-sided reporting of DPRK missile tests, are widely believed, even by people who normally question the truthfulness of corporate media. The six year long fight of Kim Ryon-hui to be free to return to DPRK highlights once again the disinformation we have been fed about the Koreas.

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Stansfield Smith, Chicago ALBA Solidarity Committee, recently returned from a SOA Watch, Task Force on the Americas delegation to Venezuela.

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